Art, literature and movies are full of cold, distant professionals—parents who work too much, stay at the office late and miss baseball games. That’s certainly not true of all executives with offspring, but it turns out that for a particular breed of business person—the entrepreneur—they might be staying at work because they love their businesses like they love their children.
Researchers at the University of Helsinki and other Finnish universities used brain scanning to uncover the connection between a father’s love for his child and an entrepreneur’s love for their company. They discovered that many of the same emotions, rewards and neurochemical processes were triggered in these two different test groups—which may help explain why entrepreneurs feel such devotion and pride in their businesses.
The test subjects in this experiment—21 fathers and 21 entrepreneurs—were shown various pictures, and their brain responses were monitored by functional MRI scans. The fathers were shown pictures of their children, along with children they knew, and the entrepreneurs saw photos of their firms and other familiar businesses. These subjects were also asked to survey their feelings toward their children or firms.
For both groups, seeing these photos reduced the activity in areas of the brain that govern social assessment and emotional processing—in effect, limiting the amount of judgment and criticality of the picture in question. They say love is blind—an aphorism actually proven by research—and for fathers and entrepreneurs, that’s certainly true.
For the most part, the fathers and entrepreneurs behaved similarly. When asked to evaluate the degree to which they “love” their child or company—in terms of their pride, satisfaction, joy and closeness, among others—both groups rated their children or business higher than the ones they were familiar with. And, for both groups, seeing these pictures activated areas of the brain that correspond to rewards and satisfaction. In many ways, the emotional states of fathers and entrepreneurs were almost identical.
There was one primary difference between the groups: In general, entrepreneurs showed a more intense positive bias toward their companies than fathers did toward their children—though fathers certainly displayed a strong bias of their own. If nothing else, a company can’t draw on the walls or throw a baseball through the window.
The study also gauged the level of confidence the subjects reported and discovered that overconfident men had even less brain activity in the areas of social cognition and assessment, meaning that they often overestimated their company or child’s successes and prospects.
Underconfident subjects, on the other hand, retained an element of logical processing and were more attuned to the risks and failures associated with their kid or business.
Imagine that: Men look at things that are theirs and get excited. To get a slightly different perspective on the issue, I asked a now-retired female entrepreneur with two children and 35 years of experience in small business ownership for her opinion. Her name is: my mom.
Alex: Did you think of your business the same way you thought of your kids?
Mom: As a mother, I wouldn’t equate the two—I didn’t have the same feelings for the business as I do for my kids. I came at my work from a more business-oriented perspective.
Alex: What was your parenting style? What values motivated you? Did that cross over to your business?
Mom: We tried to do things the way that we wanted our kids to do them. We were fair, we were honest—and those kinds of values that you would want your kids to have were reflected in the business. We handled customers that way, too: We were always there, we were always attentive. In that respect, they were similar, but I was too busy working to equate the two (laughs).
Alex: What was your objective with your business?
Mom: It was never a goal to become a $10 million business. We were trying to maintain a level of success and offer quality products without having to be the biggest and the best. We just wanted to do it well at a sustainable level.
Kids and family or other things in your life always come first. In my case, the kid things were more important than the business things.
Alex: Entrepreneurs’ confidence level affects how they see their businesses. Were you a confident entrepreneur? A confident parent?
Mom: I had no training in business—and to be fair, many startup people don’t—but I was the one who just had to figure it out. To begin, I was less confident in the business, because everything was a learning process. But as the business grew and changed, I got more confident. I could see my business clearly and make changes and grow once I knew how things worked.
In parenting—because I have a degree in teaching—I had some experience in handling kids and a bit of training. That made things easier, plus the children were just exceptional (laughs).
Alex: What were some moments that made you proud of the business?
Mom: My business provided jobs for people at all levels of the economic ladder, including those who might not have had opportunities otherwise, and that was important to me.
My business designed original products to simplify pet care in a targeted market. For me, the goals in designing products were that they worked well in a professional setting, and that they could grow to fill other needs over time. I started with one product, made changes, added others and created new designs. That’s a similar process to parenting, as your kids reach new stages in development.
The products—the fact that they work well, are designed to last and made with quality—in a business sense may not be the standard, but that was our goal. If someone uses the same product for years, they know the quality and will return.
Alex: Even if you didn’t feel the same way about your kids and your business, it sounds like your value system applied to both.
Mom: Having an ethical business in every sense was important. When other companies took the opposite approach, my theory was choosing the right and ethical way will always win. Providing a quality product with fast, fair service is the type of business that you want to promote. Those values were similar to my outlook on raising kids: You get out what you put in.
Alex Gaterud is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. As of 2016, the three most important things in his life are Bruce Springsteen, Sour Patch Kids and playing the drums.