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‘We Built It’: The Neuroscience of Success

Why Barack Obama's phrase: 'You didn't build it' may have hurt so much

We built it

When President Barack Obama uttered the words ‘"If you've got a business -- you didn't build that," he might as well have inserted a live electrode into the amygdalas of millions of American business people. The amygdala is a key emotional centre in the brain for both fear and rage.

Never mind that it was a clumsy phrase that did not convey the meaning in the rest of the speech – only a couple of lines later he said ‘when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together’ - he had handed Mitt Romney a potent slogan for the Republican National Congress ‘We built it’.

Becoming a successful business person is tough, and failure is the name of the game for hundreds of thousands of businesses, before they find success. Success has powerful effects on the brain: it increases levels of the hormone testosterone in both men and women, and ramps up the brain’s chemical messenger dopamine’s activity[i].

The brain has a common ‘reward network’, whose dopamine-linked activity underpins all these great feelings we have when we enjoy delicious food, win a bet, get a pay rise, have sex – or succeed. Drugs like cocaine can so hijack this network that they can make such natural, normal rewards of life seem pale and lifeless – that is the curse of addiction.

Success also acts like a tranquilliser – it reduces levels of the stress-hormone cortisol – and may even have mild anti-depressant qualities. Finally, its psychological effects are powerful – it gives our self-confidence and feeling of control over the world an ego-enhancing boost.

So to hear the words ‘you didn’t build that’, no matter how out of context, would have jolted the brains of hard working business-people because it threatened their dopamine-fuelled feelings of achievement and success, likely raised their stress hormone levels and most importantly was a major threat to their egos. ‘If I didn’t build that, then maybe I’m not the person I thought I was,’ they might respond.

When my ego is threatened by the negative opinion of others - so-called ‘social-evaluative threat’ – this is one of the most stressful situations that I can experience, Sally Dickerson and colleagues of the University of California at Irvine have shown[ii] . They showed that self-evaluative threat is more stressful than financial insecurity, health worries, work strains and pressures, fear of death, worries about our children, too many demands on our time, or fear of burglary attack.

At the heart of this threat is shame and a belief that others will judge who you are – your self – as inferior or inadequate. Shame is an ancient evolved emotion that Charles Darwin himself described as relating almost exclusively to the judgment of others. Take baboons, for instance – one of the most stressful things that can happen to a baboon, as measured by cortisol levels in the blood, is to have his social status lowered by defeat or subordination by another baboon.

In all animals, including humans, social threat has big effects on the immune system. When this feeling of being looked down upon or rejected by others persists over time, it can impact our health. It is this sense of social rejection that, for instance, makes redundancy so particularly painful, irrespective of the financial compensation. A study by Steve Cole and colleagues from the University of California at Los Angeles studied the progress of HIV-infected people[iii]. They found that those who were particularly sensitive to feeling rejected by others because of their homosexuality showed greater declines over the next nine years in their immune function, particularly in a type of immune system cell called the CD4 T-cell, than the ones who cared less about rejection by other people. These self-threatened people developed AIDS and died around two years sooner than those with a more secure and less threatened homosexual identity.

Given that these two groups of HIV-infected people were healthy at the start of the study, and were not different on any physical, social or psychological measures at the beginning of the 9-year period, this suggests that the threats to self that come from feeling that others think badly of you and reject you because of some aspect of your identity may indeed be toxic and damaging to health. These were not general effects of unhappiness or low psychological state. How do we know this? Because whereas feeling rejected by other people is strongly linked to the immune system health as measured by CD4 T-cell levels - sadness, anxiety, general stress and depression are not, Sally Dickerson and her colleagues at the University of Irvine have found[iv].

America is a place where success is celebrated, unlike some other countries where success can be mistrusted and resented. This means risk-taking and willingness to persist through failure are supported and encouraged, without the handicap of being stressed by the possibility of social-evaluative threat.

The phrase ‘If you've got a business -- you didn't build that’ could hardly be a bigger source of social-evaluative threat to that psychologically supportive entrepreneurial culture and to the business people themselves. Hence the sparking amygdalas triggering rage and outrage against a speech-writer’s ill-considered words. Hence too the joy of Mitt Romney’s congress organizers who recognized it for the brain-changing phrase that it was.

Clint Eastwood, however, may have dampened the activity of ten million amygdalas by switching on the bemusement centers of these brains. President Obama should be very grateful to him.

Twitter @ihrobertson

[i] Robertson IH (2012) The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failure. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St Martin’s Press.

[ii] Dickerson, Sally S.; Kemeny, Margaret E. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 130, 355-391

[iii] Cole et al (1997) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 72 pp. 320–336.

[iv] Dickerson S et al (2004) Journal of Personality 72, 1191-1216.

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