Do what I say, not what I do! The neuroscience of hypocrisy

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Have you ever wondered why a sad film makes you cry? Or why a tense drama has you on the edge of your seat?


The reason is: mirror neurons!

A mirror neuron is a brain cell that fires both when you do something and when you observe the same action performed by someone else. In other words, the neuron mirrors the behaviour of the other person, as though you were doing it yourself.

If I see someone sipping a cup of coffee, those same neurons fire in my brain to make me want to do it too. You may have noticed that when you are in rapport with someone, you often subconsciously adopt the same posture – another example of mirror neurons in action.

James Bond

In his book, the Empathetic Brain, neuroscientist Christian Keysers, illustrates the point: Your heart beats faster as you watch a tarantula crawl on James Bond’s chest in the movie Dr No, your hands sweat and your skin tingles under the spider’s legs. You feel scared, tense, and finally relieved when Bond manages to escape the danger. We are essentially empathic.

Mirror neurons, first discovered in the 1990s by Dr. Rizzolatti, at the University of Parma, enable us to understand the actions of other people, and to learn new skills by imitation.

In our hunter-gatherer days, if we saw someone getting sick from eating poisonous berries, we wouldn’t want to make the same mistake ourselves. The human race wouldn’t have survived long like that.

The brain is a social organ

The brain is designed to befriend and interact with fellow humans. Our very success as a species depends on co-operating with others who have specialist skills to compliment our own. Mirror neurons facilitate the organisational learning process.

So what are the lessons for business leaders?

We are all familiar with clichés like “lead by example” or “Walk the talk”. Mirror neurons go some way towards explaining the truth behind such adages.

The Holy Grail for most organisations is a happy, positive and energised workplace. It should now be obvious why a manager’s mindset is critical in creating that culture. A manager who looks for the positive, compliments others, and coaches them to raise their game will activate those same mirror neurons in their staff.

By contrast, a downcast, critical manager will only spread negativity. I would suggest that it is a manager’s duty to transcend their own feelings, and invoke in themselves how they want their team to feel.

Many times I have to give a conference speech early in the morning after a sleepless night-flight. If I came on stage tired and yawning, I’d send my audience to sleep. I have to create in myself the energy and excitement with which I want to infect the audience. They will literally pick up my vibe. It is no different for business leaders – they have to be the culture that they want to create.

Neuroscientist, David Eagleman, associate professor at Stanford University, conducted experiments asking subjects to look at photos of people in differing emotional states. Eagleman discovered that those same emotional states were mirrored back in the faces of the subject, and actually detected in their brain. So just by looking at a happy face it actually makes you happy!


With a twist to the experiment, Eagleman then repeated this on subjects who’d had Botox treatment. Botox is a toxin that paralyses the facial muscles and so impacts the way a person can smile. Those unable to mirror the smiles in others could not activate their own “smiling” neurons. They were consequently starved of happy signals within their own brain, reducing their empathetic responses. How ironic that people use Botox to feel good about themselves, yet it actually has the opposite effect!

Thanks to mirror neurons, being generous and giving towards others is the ultimate in win-win. It not only makes their day… it makes yours too!

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