Entrepreneurs are more single-minded

Jan Ketil Arnulf

But is it because they are born that way, or did they become like that? New research study from BI Norwegian Business School gives some answers.


The outside world often perceives successful entrepreneurs as a little strange, single-minded, obsessed and somewhat compulsive in their behaviour. It is easy to think that this is because they have a special personality.

However, according to two researchers at BI Norwegian Business School, it is the activities they engage in, rather than their personality, which influence the way they act.
“Personality has only an indirect impact on entrepreneurs’ behaviour,” says Associate Professor Jan Ketil Arnulf.

Together with doctoral student John-Erik Mathisen, Arnulf carried out a study among 608 current and aspiring entrepreneurs. The study shows that many of the entrepreneurs had developed recurring and automatic thoughts regarding business ideas. However, they did not differ from others as regards compulsive behaviour in other areas.
“The neurotic personality trait is not related to the mindset of entrepreneurs,” the researchers concluded.

Tested the mindset of students
A mindset, or thought pattern, is when you automatically recognise certain patterns in your surroundings and are able to find the best and most efficient action.

A chess player’s ability to see and solve chess problems which other people need a long time to think through, is a good example of a mindset.

Mathisen and Arnulf have developed and tested a gauge for mapping the intensity of various mindsets related to entrepreneurship. This is based on knowledge acquired over more than 100 years of psychological laboratory research and clinical-psychological research.

The tests were conducted on a selection of students in entrepreneurships. Many of them were already entrepreneurs before they started formal studies.

Shift between three mindsets
The researchers identified three different mindsets for entrepreneurs:

•    Elaborating mindsets (explorative): Mindsets that deal with assessing situations and absorbing information. Here people are open to new information and are thoughtful.
•    Implemental mindsets (action-oriented): A condition where everything is interpreted based on known patterns and where the outcome is most often a type of action, i.e. implementation.
•    Compulsiveness about business ideas: Recurring thoughts about business ideas that are difficult to control and that tend to disrupt other parts of life.

The participants in the study had varying degrees and intensity of the three mindsets. People who become entrepreneurs seem to develop mindsets from the exploratory mindsets via action-oriented thoughts to compulsive thoughts.

“By developing an action-oriented mindset, potential entrepreneurs get mentally prepared for spotting business opportunities. It automatically triggers targeted actions,” according to the organisation researchers.

Need implementation capability
Studies show that repeated actions can develop into automatic and intense thoughts (compulsive thoughts) regarding business ideas. This could eventually become characteristic for a person with this mindset.

“Our study indicates that compulsive thoughts regarding business ideas could be a resource in an entrepreneurship situation,” says Mathisen.

The study shows that some people develop compulsive thoughts about business ideas without first having developed the resources which action-oriented mindsets constitute.

“Such students become compulsively occupied with achieving success in business. However, they have trouble succeeding because they lack the action strategies to take them there,” says Jan Ketil Arnulf.

Education alone doesn’t cut it
Education can be a useful and necessary first step on the road towards developing good mindsets for entrepreneurships.

Formal education alone could hypothetically create a predominance of exploratory mindsets and too many ideas. Unless this is combined with practice and action-oriented thoughts develop, it could in the worst case lead to the entrepreneur becoming compulsively obsessed with the outcome instead of the activities that will lead to the goal.

All of the participants in the study took a personality test.

“The tests indicate that the mindsets develop as a result of the activities. The personality is not directly associated with automatic thoughts and actions,” says Mathisen.

The researchers presume that mindsets are important in all occupations.

“That is why education must safeguard and promote action-oriented mindsets in students. This is particularly important in subjects where the occupation requires initiative, such as entrepreneurship and management.”

Mathisen, J. E., & Arnulf, J. A. Entrepreneurial Mindsets: Theoretical Foundations and Empirical Properties of a Mindset Scale. International Journal of Management and Business, 5(1), 81-104, 2014.

Published 14. October 2014

You can also see all news here.