How brain science found its way into business school
When Victoria Westerhoff decided to study for an MBA at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school in 2016, an unusual elective caught her eye: consumer neuroscience. The field was important to her — she trained as a cognitive scientist at Yale.
As part of the Wharton course, Ms Westerhoff used an eye-tracking system to assess how much attention she paid to product placement in film clips, and she noted a lift in attention paid to products placed prominently. “The more time your eyeballs are on something, the larger the impact,” she says.
That research made her realise how science can improve business. Neuroscientific consumer research can be more detailed and effective than traditional methods, such as surveys. “We can capture the emotional responses that help drive unconscious decisions, including what we buy,” Ms Westerhoff says.
Business education is not limited to accounting, strategy and finance. Future leaders are trying out “mind-scanning” electroencephalography (EEG), heart-rate monitors and meditation, as schools create courses at the nexus of business and brain science to help students improve productivity, influence decision-making and handle stress.
Neuroscience “will play a huge role in the future of business education,” says Michael Platt, a Wharton professor, because “we have reached a point where we understand so much about the human brain — how it processes information — that we can use neuroscience to do business better”.
Thomas Bonfiglio, a regional director with American Medical Response in New York, a medical transportation company, says practising guided meditation with his team at the beginning of meetings has made them more productive. Mr Bonfiglio learnt techniques on a two-day neuroscience for leadership course at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, in 2014.
“We have a lot of aggressive, alpha-type personalities,” he says. “It was often difficult to get the group to work together.” But after introducing meditation, they worked more quickly and effectively, Mr Bonfiglio says.
“At first people were sceptical because it took up time. However, I found that instead of arguments, there was more positive discussion, and the tone was more conciliatory.”
Another reason schools launch neuroscience programmes is because students demand them. At Columbia Business School, enrolment to a three-day “neuroleadership” executive course has increased by 50 per cent over the past two years.
“Demand is growing because business leaders who are ahead of the curve know that emotion can impact their performance,” says Yoshie Tomozumi Nakamura, Columbia’s director of organisational learning and research.
A moderate increase in heart rate can improve performance because it increases the amount of blood in the brain, and the neurotransmitter activity that enhances cognitive processing, according to Lee Waller, director of research at the UK’s Hult International Business School.
“We think clearly, make good decisions and learn well,” she says. But too much stress causes the opposite response as more blood flows to the limbs — known as “fight or flight”— and that reduces cognitive function.
Participants on a three-day leadership programme at Ashridge Executive Education, part of Hult, practise stressful scenarios, such as criticising an employee’s performance.
They wear heart-rate variance monitors to understand the impact of stress on their sympathetic nervous system — which activates the fight-or-flight response — and how well their bodies recover.
Sport and management
Elite athletes are helping to improve managers’ performance. This year, 100 MBA and executive MBA students from Mannheim Business School will visit TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, a top-tier German football club.
They aim to learn how to use sports analytics — the application of data and analytics to performance management — in business.
TSG teamed up with SAP to place sensors on footballers to gather data from training, such as speed averages and ball possession. The data can be used to personalise training to focus on a player’s strengths or weaknesses, for instance to focus more on acceleration and to assess movement to reduce the chance of injuries.
“We will ask the students to come up with ways to use people analytics to improve organisational performance,” says Dr Sabine Staritz, Mannheim director of corporate relations.
For example, some companies track employees’ heart rate, sleep and other personal data to avoid a different type of injury: burnout.
“Practice develops ‘muscle memory’: the next time we encounter the experience, our brain remembers how we dealt with it, and we are able to cope with the stress better,” Mrs Waller says.
In an ethics course at Kellogg School at Northwestern University, MBA students are taught how neuroscience can “influence people or persuade people”, says Adam Waytz, an associate professor.
He says research suggests that people are more likely to take moral action, such as donating to disaster relief, when they feel emotion, rather than when presented with reasoning and logic. That understanding may help fundraisers design more effective campaigns, for example.
However, neuroscience presents business schools with problems. One challenge they face in teaching the subject is finding scholars who can apply neuroscientific research to business, says Patricia Riddell, professor of applied neuroscience with Henley Business School at University of Reading.
“That expertise is in very short supply,” she says. Henley has used academics from University of Reading’s psychology department to teach neuroscience to students on its MA in leadership course.
The greater worry is that neuroscience could be used in a way that manipulates people into buying products, for example, by using stimuli in advertising to activate parts of the brain associated with pleasure.
“We do not want students to graduate and claim that they have found the ‘buy button’ in the brain,” says Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at the Fox School of Business.
Fox runs a PhD programme in decision neuroscience. “We teach our students about the ethical use of neurophysiological tools in business, by organising workshops and conferences,” Dr Dimoka says. “But we can’t police every future decision they make.”