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Brain physiology explains why it’s harder to fire a flesh-and-blood partner than a faceless firm

Studies have shown that most people would flip a switch to divert a train if that would kill one person but save five; yet, those same people, if they had to physically push one person off a bridge to save five people, refuse. According to the Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2006 at 90, to consider whether to kill someone with your own hands triggers neural activity in the emotion-processing regions of the brain, such as the medial prefrontal cortex, the striatum, and the amygdala (See my post of Feb. 12, 2006 on the amygdala’s powers.).

The decision to kill someone remotely, with the flip of a switch, excites activity elsewhere in the brain, “in the anterior and dorsolateral areas of the prefrontal cortex, home of more-rational thought processes.” The theory proposes that different parts of the brain serve different functions and evolved at different times in the history of humans. Each function had survival value under different circumstances.

If this understanding of the brain is correct, it explains why the decision to fire an employee that you know, or to cease using a trusted partner at a firm tears us up far more than the impersonal decision to close a remote office full of anonymous staff or to converge away a firm that you know only as a name.

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