Public Release: 

Risky decision-making essential to entrepreneurialism

University of Cambridge

Whether someone will become the next Richard Branson, Steve Jobs or Henry Ford may be down to whether they make risky decisions, scientists at the University of Cambridge have concluded.

The article, published today in the journal Nature, asserts that entrepreneurs are riskier decision-makers than their managerial counterparts. Additionally, the type of decision-making essential to the entrepreneurial process may be possible to teach or enhanced in the future by pharmaceuticals.

Psychological and biomedical research has traditionally considered risk-taking as an abnormal expression of behaviour, as exemplified by its association with substance abuse and bipolar disorder. However, the Cambridge research, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council, found that entrepreneurs represent an example of highly adaptive risk-taking behaviour which can result in positive outcomes during stressful economic circumstances. This 'functional impulsivity', the ability to make quick decisions under stress, may have evolutionary value as a means of seizing opportunities in a rapidly-changing environment.

Entrepreneurs choose to start their own business ventures rather than working within an existing company. Whilst there is a potential for considerable profit in making the decision to 'go out on their own', these individuals accept the accompanying risks (to finances, reputation, family stability and even self-esteem) as many new ventures fail. The scientists propose that it is these types of decisions which differentiate entrepreneurs from others.

To test their hypothesis, the scientists had 16 entrepreneurs from 'Silicon Fen' (the cluster of high-tech companies in and around Cambridge) and 17 managers complete a computerised neurocognitive assessment measuring various aspects of their decision-making abilities. On a decision-making task that required 'cold' processes, entrepreneurs and managers performed similarly. ('Cold' processes govern real-life decisions such as when planning the opening of a consulting company or hiring staff.)

The researchers then had the entrepreneurs and managers make 'hot' or risky decisions which involved evaluating rewarding versus punishing outcomes. (For example, the decision between financing one of several potentially excellent but risky business opportunities is a hot decision - it is too difficult for emotions not to play a role.) On this test, although entrepreneurs and managers both made good quality decisions, entrepreneurs were significantly riskier. Entrepreneurs also showed superior cognitive flexibility and higher ratings on questionnaires which measure impulsivity. These cognitive processes are intimately linked to brain neurochemistry, particularly to the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Professor Barbara Sahakian, lead author of the study, said: "This study has shown that not all risk-taking is disadvantageous, particularly when combined with enhanced flexible problem solving. In fact, risky or 'hot' decision-making is an essential part of the entrepreneurial process and may be possible to teach, particularly in young adults where higher risk taking is likely and age-appropriate.

"Additionally, from previous studies we know that drugs can be used to manipulate dopamine levels, leading to changes in risky decision-making. Therefore, our findings also raise the question of whether one could enhance entrepreneurship pharmacologically."

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For additional information please contact:

Genevieve Maul, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge
Tel: +44 (0) 1223 332300, +44 (0) 1223 765542
Mob: +44 (0) 7774 017464
Email: Genevieve.maul@admin.cam.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

1. The commentary 'The innovative brain' will be published in the 13 November 2008 edition of Nature.

2. The University of Cambridge research team was comprised of Andrew Lawrence, Dr Luke Clark and Jamie Nicole Labuzetta and Professor Barbara Sahakian of the MRC_Wellcome Trust Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute and Dr Shai Vyakarnam from Judge Business School.

3. The Wellcome Trust is the largest charity in the UK. It funds innovative biomedical research, in the UK and internationally, spending over £600 million each year to support the brightest scientists with the best ideas. The Wellcome Trust supports public debate about biomedical research and its impact on health and wellbeing. http://www.wellcome.ac.uk

4. The Medical Research Council is dedicated to improving human health through excellent science. It invests on behalf of the UK taxpayer. Its work ranges from molecular level science to public health research, carried out in universities, hospitals and a network of its own units and institutes. The MRC liaises with the Health Departments, the National Health Service and industry to take account of the public's needs. The results have led to some of the most significant discoveries in medical science and benefited the health and wealth of millions of people in the UK and around the world. http://www.mrc.ac.uk

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