The Neuroscience of Success and Failure

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Neuroscientist and clinical psychologist Ian Robertson looks at why some people succeed in life and in business while others fail, and why some individuals become powerful while most others remain powerless. In The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failure, he shows how success changes the chemistry of the brain, making you more focused, smarter, more confident, and more aggressive. It also answers the question of why some people attain and then handle success better than others.


Ian Robertson

Comments [24]

Whisper LI

I might be one of those living under the conditions described as low success, paycheck to paycheck, etc...for a long time now -

BUT I make sure I get plenty of quality exercise and eat very healthily despite my situations (the junk food is easy and cheaper excuse for the poor is simply that, an excuse) and every check-up I "score" as if I'm 3 decades younger! (I'm 53)

Go figure.

Oct. 16 2012 05:49 PM

From my perspective as a layman, it's hard to tell whether the science is legitimate or whether it is more akin pop-psychology. All the same, it is very interesting.

Oct. 16 2012 01:49 PM
PHYSIOLOGICAL testosterone v "Syndrome X"? from Time for a long term RCT?

People who are dominated and live insecure lives
are subject to "Sydrome X" - an increased likelyhood
of high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes which
make them more likely to die (on average DECADES before
successful people who are secure socio-economically.
Syndrome X is profoundly related to chronically elevated
levels of CORTISOL which increases BP and blood sugar -
even acutely (and increases coagulability - eg. heart attacks
and strokes).

Cortisol is part of the body's response to stress. When
people are low in life's pecking order, it is chronically
elevated. Your guest indicates that Testosterone is
depressed and that these hormones have RECIPROCAL effects.

HOW about a LONG TERM randomized controlled trial to examine
the effects on currently healthy people who are low in security
and position in life's pecking order. In one group offer
PHYSIOLOGICAL testosterone replacement (to the level of
a NORMAL SUCCESSFUL PERSON) + exercise advice, in the other
offer just the exercise advice.

Purists and Calvinists are causing great HARM.
If Lance Armstrong can have IMPROVED fitness
by CONTROLLED levels of hormone replacement with
out the clear DAMAGING effects of Overdose/Excessive
POPULATION rather than just reflexively condemning it.

Oct. 16 2012 01:39 PM

jgarbuz from Queens
monogamy is not the rule and never has been. even jewish men took second wives as u must know, even in the modern era

Oct. 16 2012 01:34 PM
Frank De Canio from Union City, NJ

Very interesting conversation. Actually these ideas are were wrapped in the less scientific trappings of Sigmund Freud and Nietzsche. Freud writes of ego-mastery and Nietzsche of Will to Power. But in the latter it's self-overcoming, not power over others. As for power in its crude sense, changing the chemistry of the brain this can be explained by the fact that as the Superego becomes more severe it needs to be anesthetized by precisely the dynamic that caused the censure in the first place. As for ego-mastery Mr. Robertson seemed to suggest as much when he differed the "winning" of a school teacher from the "winning" of a financier bent on increasing his wealth. As for chemistry affecting actions, while Freud always felt there would be a chemical or neurological underpinning to mental proclivities, environment (the totality of social and mental contingencies) plays a much more influential role. It's not strange why someone growing up in an oppressive environment will fare less than someone growing up in a favorable one. Neither should we doubt that success breeds success (barring guilt dynamics; see Freud's "Criminality from a Sense of Guilt), since the former reinforces the very contingencies which generated it in the first place. Nor is it strange why one son in a family who becomes a professor might inform the decision of his jealous younger brother to become a delinquent. Once again, we need no neurological ghosts to tell us why. Chemistry is more of an epiphenomenon of the ego than the other way around; though it probably informs to a degree the prevailing mindnset of individuals.

Oct. 16 2012 01:00 PM
RJ from prospect hts

Sorry for the atrocious grammar in last post--a casualty of rushing.

Oct. 16 2012 12:57 PM
John A

re: Testosterone
See: "goat gland quacks" of the 20th century

Oct. 16 2012 12:54 PM
RJ from prospect hts.

Whatever skill Dr, Robinson may want to attribute to Malcolm Gladwell (andI have not read his work), authors routinely use individuals' stories to illustrate science premises to make it more understandable for the reader. He may want to suggest that, in his opinion, Gladwell has more skill than others is his prerogative, but please don't dismiss the many others who use this technique.

Oct. 16 2012 12:53 PM
John A.

Can this be backed out to a worldview. The US won the cold war, it can therefore throw out caution regarding: Human rights, Equality, Careful money management, Respect for the underdog, etc, etc.

Oct. 16 2012 12:50 PM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

After all the news and studies I've heard, it seems that Cortisol is a huge problem for many people. Is someone working on an anti-Cortisol shot?

Oct. 16 2012 12:49 PM

With respect to longevity and prize-winning, presumably the studies control for effects of increased income that come with prize-winning....

Oct. 16 2012 12:48 PM
Taher from Croton on Hudson

Are controlling and power mad individuals born psychopaths?

Oct. 16 2012 12:47 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

The relationship between money and attractiveness ("beauty") is as follows:


Where B = Beauty and M = Money and I'll let you guess what C stands for :)

So B and M are essentially equivalent. That is why old guys with lots of money get young trophy wives, and increasingly vice versa,where rich ladies are increasingly able to get younger men to mate with.

Oct. 16 2012 12:44 PM

Unfortunately, our society and world are so oppressive for the majority of people that it's impossible to attribute success or failure to brain chemistry. A poor child born in a war-ravaged nation will not receive the basic nutrition required for their brain to develop properly, so we'll never know that child's potential, assuming they even live past the age of five. In the U.S., there is no dispute that the majority of people (women and non-whites) are routinely and violently excluded from opportunity, promotion, and decent pay.

Beyond that, the individual family unit plays a critical role. Studies have shown that when children are abused, ridiculed, demeaned, they never develop the confidence to use their own talents in the world. Females are known to fear success, not irrationally but because they are actually attacked by most of society when they succeed, and that price is simply too much to bear.

Probably the greatest gift any parent can give their child is to tell them that if they do not succeed, do not take it personally. Remain objective. Evaluate the possible reasons for the failure, adjust your approach, and keep at it. If that does not work, consider alternatives. If you personalize failure, see it as a reflection of your own inadequacies, that will likely doom your efforts not to mention your life.

Oct. 16 2012 12:42 PM

To what extent might all this tend to explain a Barack Obama who advocated for human rights and accountability in 2008 and earlier and threw all that our the window upon becoming president?

And who would be worse — Barack Obama who once supported human rights or Mitt Romney who never did?

Oct. 16 2012 12:41 PM

Do success and power evolve into "happiness"? Or sense of accomplishment or self-realization?

Oct. 16 2012 12:41 PM
Laura from UWS

Great segment! Very helpful! Brain science confirms Ancient Greek ideas, too. Look up pleonexia.

In my own experience when I got a huge raise and major promotion, suddenly it was as if my brain synapses functioned so much better. Solutions and new ideas came faster.

Oct. 16 2012 12:40 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

to hjs

For once I have to agree with you. "Winners" were the ones who got to reproduce and spread the sperm and genes around more liberally.

But once humans were able to create killing tools from rocks, they could more easily ambush and murder each other. So monogamy became the rule amongst human primates, to apportion females out in a more "equitable" manner, so that a single male didn't monopolize a large herd of them at the expense of the weaker males (the "losers.") Only the strongest or "rulers" still got a larger share of females. But "marriage" was a man-made institution to keep a degree of social order. By and large, females who had the kids to keep them company, so as long as they had a strong man to protect them, they didn't mind if a single stud serviced them. "Marriage" was NOT invented by females.It was primarily to the advantage of the majority of men.

Oct. 16 2012 12:34 PM
Jim B

How about the neo-Darwinian approach: power best ensures continuance of one's genes.

Oct. 16 2012 12:32 PM
Christine from Westchester

hjs: spoken as a man.

As a woman, power is about not having to be subject to pinheads. And wealth isn't bad either.

Oct. 16 2012 12:25 PM

And these days the blue states are the Democratic ones!

Oct. 16 2012 12:21 PM

A few things;

1. Mr. Lopate's question regarding the person who chooses to be a monk points out the deep issues of how socially-guided definitions (say, of "success") guide what is claimed to be objective scientific study.

2. There is a huge body of literature in a range of disciplines that critically examines the mythology of success, meritocracy, etc. (Nobel prize winning economists Kenneth Arrow and Amartya Sen both have considered these issues, among many others).

3. What's the relation between the hunger for power and the hunger for wealth when so much power in the US turns on wealth?

4. The point about those who think there success is based on innate or inherited or native talents giving up more easily resonates with schooling approaches these days. Better to tell a child that she has demonstrated hard work rather than "being smart."

Oct. 16 2012 12:17 PM

Forget power! Winning (and power) is about getting the ladies

Oct. 16 2012 12:16 PM
John A

"Egotesticle" What you find in business, yes.

Oct. 16 2012 12:14 PM

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