Entrepreneurs love their companies as if they were own children, study finds

HELSINKI, Finland — It’s not uncommon for people to refer to a pet personal project as their “baby.” Entrepreneurs are especially prone to use a parenting metaphor to describe their feelings about a fledgling business venture, studies show.

But it’s not just random usage.  According to a new scientific study, many business owners really do experience the same intense attachment to their company that parents – especially fathers — display for their children.  It shows up in the part of their brain linked to emotional processing and reward seeking — the so-called caudate nucleus.

Father and son
Entrepreneurs have an affinity for their companies the same way a father loves his children, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland tested samples of fathers and entrepreneurs using sophisticated MRI imaging techniques that allowed them to detect subtle changes in the brain activity of the two groups.  When fathers were shown pictures of their children and entrepreneurs were exposed to images of their company, the neural networks surrounding the caudate nucleus “lit up” in nearly identical fashion, the researchers found.

The Finnish team, led by Dr. Marja-Liisa Halko of the department of political and economic studies, also compared the brain imaging responses of fathers and entrepreneurs to children and firms outside their family or immediate circle.

The fMRI responses were weaker but still significant and also paralleled each other, suggesting that the experience of fathering and business ownership may reflect a broader affinity and relationship attachment.

Not all of the team’s findings were so positive.  Like parental love, entrepreneurial “love” can be “blind,” the researchers found.  The business owners they tested tended to have a rosier view of their business prospects – and a more naïve view of their market competitors– than their actual circumstances warranted, the team concluded.

“While cognitive illusions that appear to be shared in entrepreneurship and fatherhood explain entry into entrepreneurship and persistence of entrepreneurs when they face uncertainties and difficulties, illusions are also often responsible for many flops and non-optimal decisions that are made in the entrepreneurial process,” the researchers noted in a lengthy report on their findings.

A few caveats are in order.  First, the Finnish team’s sample was exceedingly small, with only 22 participants in each sub-group, none of whom were chosen at random, which calls into question how statistically reliable the findings are.  Moreover, among enlistees, the researchers deliberately screened for “growth-oriented” entrepreneurs – all of them men — who may be more likely to attach themselves zealously to their enterprise, confirming the study’s hypothesis.

Past studies have pointed to differences in the way men and women approach entrepreneurship. On average, men are more likely to devote long hours to their business; women, by contrast, tend to seek a better balance between their business and family life.

“Future research on entrepreneurs’ emotional attachment to their venture could perform an assessment and comparison of neural activations of female and male entrepreneurs,” the researchers acknowledged.

The team’s findings were published in the online journal Human Brain Mapping.


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