Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cortical de-activation and ethics classes at business schools

On October 28, “The Financial Times” carried a column, apparently without any sense of irony, entitled “Is it possible to teach ethics to business school students?”

The answer is, of course, “Yes, it is”.

But the more important question is, “Will it influence their behaviour?”

I think not, especially where big money is involved.

Imagine a business school student, from one of the leading business schools and with a good background in ethics and moral philosophy, confronted with a situation in which he or she (more likely, he) can make billions, even if it entails suffering among hundreds of small savers? And why restrict ourselves to billions? The same would be true if the gains to be made are in the millions or the hundreds of thousands or the thousands, or even the hundreds. Will there be anything to stop him? Will his ethical education be of any value or practical use?

Evidence over the past two decades shows that it will not. I restrict myself to more recent evidence because it has been better exposed.

The question rather should be: “Is it possible for business school students, or better still those making money, to use any knowledge derived from their ethical studies to regulate their behaviour when confronted with the prospect of unheard of riches?”

I think not.

But why should this be so?

The reason lies, I have suggested in these columns, in the de-activation of judgmental areas of the cerebral cortex, including the frontal lobes, when greed holds sway. This is still conjectural and, to my knowledge, has not been properly studied by neurobiologists. But we have evidence from another brain system, the one regulating love. Evidence has shown that there is a strong cortical de-activation of judgmental areas when we are in love.

Hence it is useless to tell a person in love that their lover is not worthy for one reason or another. Their de-activated cortex cannot accept that conclusion.

Likewise, it is useless telling someone about to make billions that their conduct is unethical. I conjecture that, faced with greed, their de-activated cortex cannot accept that conclusion. And so, all these ethical courses will be found to be totally useless.

Notice that, in both cases, the judgmental de-activation is highly selective. Those who are passionately in love can exercise judgment in matters not relating to their love affairs, and those who are greedy for money can nevertheless exercise their ethical standards in matters not relating to their greed.

It may indeed be interesting to conduct an experiment in which the extent of cortical de-activation is plotted against the extent of gains to be made from greedy behaviour. I wouldn't be surprised if there is a straightforward, proportional, relationship. There is, after all, such a relationship between extent of hate experience and activity in certain areas of the brain.

I myself do not consider greed as either bad or good, but only as a biological reality that we are faced with.

And it is with biological realities that economists and business schools, as well as government regulators, should deal.


Margaret Bowker said...

Thank you for this post, Professor. I found it very interesting, informative and helpful. Apart from being a novelist, I also lobby for major projects and am a commentator on financial and other matters. ( experienced amateur) I followed the progress of the financial crisis as you did. I felt the barriers were down and the human tendency to excess was to the fore. So I support the global regulation coming in. Like you, I don't think you can teach ethics in business schools. You can literally, but I'm not sure that in the heat of the dealing rooms it would readily come to mind. Strangely, I use the experience of creating characters to help me in my commentary. I find human interaction fascinating and it helps me give what I hope is reasonable opinion. I shall read all your blogs. Some of mine can be found by UK googling my name - Margaret Bowker along with that of the Sunday Telegraph.

beril said...

As a current MBA student who is actively sitting through MBA classes I found your post very interesting. There is a great debate going on within MBA schools right now on whether the ethics education is effective or even necessary and whether the schools themselves need to take an active role in ensuring that ethics becomes a core part of the curriculum. I would love to learn your opinion on the MBA Oath initiative at Harvard. Do you think signing an oath, in a way that is similar to the hippocratic oath will make any difference?

Professor Zeki said...

The MBA Oath initiative is no doubt well meaning, as well as being an open acknowledgment of the fact that there is a need to regulate greed in business matters (greed, by definition, is amoral). However, it takes no account of biological reality. When faced with the prospect of making good money, even when it entails untold misery for others, an oath would serve for nothing. I believe that when faced with greed, judgmental parts of the brain and those parts of the brain that regulate morality (if there are such) are rendered inactive. Hence an oath would serve no purpose whatsoever. One might as well administer an oath to Count Dracula before appointing him Director of the National Blood Bank.

Steven said...

I am a member of the general public that holds a fascination with neuropsychology. My marine biology undergraduate education taught me how to appreciate scientific journals. I recently stumbled upon your work and have read most of your papers. I find them absolutely fascinating!

One question: Love leads to cortical de-activation. Other researchers have found that narcissists have 25% of the cortical activity of non-narcissists. If a narcissist is in love with him/herself, is the diminished cortical activity the cause of their grandiosity (lack of appropriate social judgment)?

Professor Zeki said...

Thanks, Steven, for your response. You raise a very interesting question, but I have not yet read the work you refer to. It would seem likely that there is some degree of cortical de-activation in self-love (narcissism) and this may account for a somewhat disturbed social judgment in cases of extreme narcissism. I say extreme because we are all up to a point in love with ourselves, without any impairment of social judgment. If I get more information about the subject to form a better opinion, I will post it. Semir Zeki