Neuroscientist David Linden (NYT):
WHEN we think of the qualities we seek in visionary leaders, we think of intelligence, creativity, wisdom and charisma, but also the drive to succeed, a hunger for innovation, a willingness to challenge established ideas and practices.
But in fact, the psychological profile of a compelling leader — think of tech pioneers like Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison and Steven P. Jobs — is also that of the compulsive risk-taker, someone with a high degree of novelty-seeking behavior. In short, what we seek in leaders is often the same kind of personality type that is found in addicts, whether they are dependent on gambling, alcohol, sex or drugs.
How can this be? We typically see addicts as weak-willed losers, and chief executives and entrepreneurs are people with discipline and fortitude. To understand this apparent contradiction we need to look under the hood of the brain, and in particular at the functions that relate to pleasure and reward.
Behind novelty-seeking, risk-taking and use of some psychoactive substances, says Linden, is blunted responsiveness to dopamine at the receptor level. According to Linden, the addict, the novelty-seeker and the risk-taker are all acting to stimulate activity in suppressed dopamine-reliant pleasure systems of the brain.
At the core of Linden's proposal is an idea that makes sense: commonplace maladaptive activity is often related to adaptive aspects of functioning that confer survival advantages. See, for example, similar speculation on the adaptive underpinnings of depression.
But neuro-reductionist explanations for behavior can oversimplify what is actually a very dynamic interplay between personality and affect regulation. Clinically-speaking, reductionist explanations encourage flatfooted diagnoses and cookbook remedies. If it were all so simple, psychoactive substances would probably be far more effective "normalizers" of troubling internal states. But neurochemistry is not narrative, belief or meaning. There are, of course, neurological substrates to these phenomena, but there is much more to inner life than simple stimulation and inhibition. This isn't to assume or suggest that Linden is unaware of the dangers of reductionism. I'm commenting more on what might be seen as the takeaway for some readers.
I have many more thoughts about substance use, abuse and addiction that go well beyond a discussion of dopaminergic activity, but I'll save them for future posts on the subject.