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Making waves

8 January 2019

Aerial image of waves coalescing

Using neurofeedback to improve leadership skills delivers results thanks to placebo rather than the technology according to a team of researchers from Cardiff University.

Professor Dirk Lindebaum, Dr Ismael Al-Amoudi and Virginia Brown from Cardiff Business School reviewed existing neuroscientific studies and found that neurofeedback practitioners are charging huge sums of money for treatment based on psychological outcomes instead of technological intervention.

A type of biofeedback, neurofeedback uses electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity, or brain waves, through electrodes on the scalp.

Quick fix

Providers claim to have identified brain wave patterns of inspirational leaders and, using neurofeedback, help clients change their brain waves to match.

“In business environments that have become more complex and fast-paced, managers are often interested in quick fixes. What we’ve found is that there is quite a gulf between what the science suggests and what provider’s claim about improving leadership skills.”

Dirk Lindebaum Professor in Management and Organisation

Prospective leaders can enjoy an intensive brain-training retreat for around £12,000, while some expect the ‘brain fitness’ market to grow to £4.5 billion by 2020.

The placebo effect

Professor Lindebaum added: “There’s considerable commercial interest in the field, and sometimes commercial interest is way ahead of the scientific evidence. They earn money by claiming that they use sophisticated technology that evidence suggests largely works through psychological effects – the placebo effect.”

It is this financial exploitation of results, neuroscientists suggest are largely drawn from placebo, which the Cardiff team finds problematic.

They suggest that exposing a critical mass of potential clients to scientific evidence, drawn from the latest neuroscience research, of its ineffectiveness may result in neurofeedback’s placebo effect disappearing.

Professor Lindebaum warns: “Don’t be seduced by technology. There are ways to get results that are cheaper than neurofeedback and based on better science.”

The study ‘Does leadership development need to care about neuro-ethics?’ is published in the Academy of Management Learning and Education.

It has also been translated for management practitioners on the newly launched Academy of Management’s Insights platform.

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