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Ethics is No Match for Adrenaline - The Neurochemistry of Business as Usual

One person’s value is another person’s ROI.

What does this mean?

When you're a company your value is in how well your products and/or services serve your customer's and client's needs and wants; when you're an investor, like Vince Lombardi said about "winning," "ROI isn't everything, it's the only thing."

What fuels this seemingly insurmountable gap?

As a neuroscientist, I often try to make sense of how people act in the world according to what's going on in their brains and minds. And something that is going on in everyone's minds is how neurochemistry can dictate their immediate behavior and values (their consistent behavior over time).

There is a continuum of neurochemicals in all of us that explain much of what we do and much of who we are that looks like this: Adrenaline -- Dopamine -- Serotonin -- Endorphin -- Oxytocin

  1. Adrenaline - This is the most addictive neurochemical.  When we are having an adrenaline rush, we are excited, impassioned, feel superpowerful and that is why so many people become "adrenaline junkies."  When adrenaline is at work, we can feel incredibly focused (which is like being centered on steroids), but doesn't necessarily mean we are calm. The downside of an adrenaline rush is that once we are hooked on adrenaline, we cannot tolerate an adrenaline crash.  In fact one of the main reasons people become and stay addicted to cocaine, crystal meth and cocaine is over time it's not about getting high, it's more about avoiding the adrenaline crash.
  2. Dopamine - This is our most pleasurable neurochemical. This is more about feeling good than feeling powerful.  Dopamine puts a smile on our face. A number of antidepressants work by increasing the functioning dopamine in us which makes sense, because when you're depressed, you're feeling bad.
  3. Serotonin - This is our most "flexible" and adaptive neurochemical.  People low on serotonin have a tendency to be rigid, ruminate, obsess and dwell too much on things where such obsessing and dwelling serves no useful purpose and is a major part of depression.  The majority of antidepressants work by increasing functional serotonin which "lightens" depressed people by lessening their counterproductive ruminating, dwelling and obsessing.
  4. Endorphin - This is our "well being" neurochemical.  It's more about feeling right with the world and ourself.  Exercise and various activities that are good for us release endorphins because there is something calming and centering about having a great sense of well being.
  5. Oxtocin - This is our bonding neurochemical.  It is active when we feel close and intimate with another person. It is what enables a nursing mother to bond with her colicky child vs. throwing them out the window. It is what happens when we feel loving and empathic towards another person. (Adrenaline is more about lust, dopamine is more about being in love, serotonin is more about being able to cooperate, endorphin is more about feeling a sense of belonging).  Most importantly ethics is fueled by oxytocin, meaning we can't want to take advantage of someone at the same time we want to bond with them (unless we're a psychopath).

The relevance to "business as usual" is that more and more people are becoming "adrenaline junkies" and getting those rushes flies at cross purposes with the other much more distant neurochemicals including and especially "doing the right thing" (something that only oxytocin cares about).  For instance, a customer who just got the "deal of the century" in getting a product or service for next to nothing is going to get "high (interesting term) fives" from the people around them as opposed to a tepid reception if they came back and said, "Wow, I just got an incredibly fair deal on a product."

Now of course, for the customer to have made such a score, means less money to the company that they bought the product or service from.  And less revenue to that company means less ROI to investors which is not going to go well with their adrenaline rush needs.

For investors, one of the greatest adrenaline rushes and one that they are still crowing about was to buy Google or more recently, Tesla, at their IPO price.   For investors, their adrenalized bragging rights are not about, "I got the latest iPhone," but rather, "I bought Apple stock at $10/share in 2001."

The drive to experience an Adrenaline rush, be it as the conspicuously consuming customer buying the next thing to show off that they don't need, or the greedy investor eclipses the other four neurochemicals. People only bother with dopamine and endorphin and serotonin because solely riding the "Adrenaline Rush runaway train" can make life too chaotic and starts to trigger too much fear in other people (a.k.a. Charlie Sheen).

The greatest casuality of all seems to be oxytocin.  Oxytocin is becoming less important and I would be interested if assays of it are showing a decline over the decades once mothers get past the first 18 months with an newborn child.  Oxytocin is what underlies patience, tenderness, TLC (tender loving care) and perhaps most important, empathy. Oxytocin is what enables us to realize and accept that "love is a verb" and what you give others and not what you get from them.  Without oxytocin our relationships lose their relating and turn into "arrangements" and projects to be managed.  Oxytocin still survives in how grandparents feel toward grandchildren, how "loving" adults feel towards their aging parents and how dog owners feel about their dogs (they are after all, "Man's best friend" aren't they?).

I wish I could offer a solution to this dilemma in business as usual where Adrenaline Rushes win the day, but in the process create "zero sum games" in which everyone loses in the end.

Even those with the most toys at the end of their life aren’t happy.  And I know that for a fact, because I crossed over into business after doing house calls to dying founders with lots of toys who felt they had blown it by focusing on the wrong things.

What would be your thoughts on this and suggestions?  Or should I just start prescribing meds?

Reader Comments (1)

To experience something different, worthy, the requirement is to do what isn't common practice. Prescribing medications isn't the answer, nor seeking fulfillment in things outside ourselves which seemly promise to bring lasting fulfillment. Exhilaration is short-lived.

We all are so very busy these days. We all have a blind spot in our field of vision. It starts with us. Seeking the most important thing, it being the priority.

When I think of closeness and the intimacy a mother shares with her child, the word contentment comes to mind. Neither the "high" or the "low"...just feeling? Comfortable. Having close relationship with comfort is acceptance.

To me, this is like meeting like. A reunion of our very essence. The first step is to seek "it". In our being busy, there is the distraction that diverts us from the potential to experience love and to be known. Truth longing to be mirrored back!

Love supersedes all things.

So...the crux of what is necessary to respond to business as usual pattern is a return to what we essentially are. Love. Seeking it within ourselves first and then, the recognition that this preciousness is in all things. The hardest thing we'll do in this life, though returning the highest return of investment, is surrender.

Oxytocin levels would inevitably rise as a consequence! The important "thing" is to be with one another just as a loving parent would. Pure, unconditional acceptance. Profound yet as simple as breath.

September 30, 2013 | Registered CommenterMark Johnson
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