It seems we are hard-wired to be social. Are we also wired to do it well? New thinking in neuroscience supports the first of these ideas but has less to say about the second.
UCLA psychology professor Matthew Lieberman in his very helpful and accessible book Social: Why our brains are wired to connect, describes recent research revealing three major adaptations in our human brains, that enable us to be better connected to the social world and better able to build more cohesive groups and organizations.
Lieberman is one of the founders of the field of social cognitive neuroscience. The three main adaptations he identifies are: firstly that mammals feel social pain and rejection in their brains in the same places and ways as they feel physical pain, “forever linking our well-being to our social connectedness.” Secondly, that our brains have a network devoted to reading the minds of others. Thirdly that we have a sense of self that is socially malleable and a network in the brain that harmonizes our beliefs and values with those of our group.
The research Lieberman reports on and the implications he draws from it are very important. They challenge many of the ways our society privileges the separate self in a similar way to the challenge behavioural economics has posed to the conventional notion of the rational profit-maximising individual.
Three thoughts/questions arose for me in reading his book.
Firstly, Lieberman’s ideas are presented as revolutionary. It is the case that Lieberman assembles “groundbreaking research” from modern neuroscience. The results also might be revolutionary in Western societies where much greater emphasis is placed on the roles and concerns of individuals. However, in more affiliative societies, where the focus is more on families, groups, communities, and societies, I wonder whether Lieberman’s ideas are like to be received as affirming the existing world view.
My second question arose as I puzzled over the account of humans reading the minds of others. Lieberman argues that mind reading, or mentalizing, is something people can do well, but tend not to because it is a high-energy endeavour. As a consequence they tend to take short cuts and assume other people think the same way they do.
“The mentalizing network does something incredibly special to facilitate our dealings with other people. It allows us to peer inside the minds of those around us, take into account their hopes, fears, goals, and intentions, and as a result interact with them much more effectively. It allows us to figure out the psychological characteristics of people we see every day so we can better predict their reactions to novel situations and avoid unnecessary feather-ruffling.”
Really? It is certainly a remarkable ability and it is one that marks us out as human but how good are we at actual mind reading? In the video role plays we use in much of our leadership development work we often see people assuming what other people are thinking or feeling, or how they are trying to manipulate, manoeuvre, or scheme to their advantage. But the stories our participants create about the character playing opposite them are often just that – their stories.
We also ask participants on our programs to think of a person who is obstructing or frustrating them in some way on an issue and then have them write three perspectives that person might be holding assuming they are operating from a heroic point of view trying to do the best they can (as they see it). It is often a struggle to step into the shoes of others and imagine how they see the world. It can be particular difficult to generate multiple versions of what people might be thinking. Participants often discover they just do not know and can but ask what might be going on for somebody else.
If we are not much good at imagining the views of others, it does not seem to diminish Lieberman’s wider point. We may not be very good at making up stories about others but we use this capability to fill the times when our minds are free-floating or any vacuum. Even when our stories paint others in a negative light they may still serve the purpose of managing our social connections, perhaps protecting us from things we fear others will do to us or from disappointments that might be just around the corner.
Perhaps it is ruminations on what others are doing and thinking and why that convinces us that we are right and then confirmation bias does the rest, confirming what we were thinking and rejecting any other data.
Mindreading is a glass half empty but most other species don’t even have a glass.
The third question arose for me with Lieberman’s third adaptation in the brain. He argues we have a sense of self that is socially malleable and a network in the brain that harmonizes our beliefs and values with those of our group. He calls our sense of self a “Trojan horse self” being, “at least in part, a cleverly disguised deception that allows the social world in and allows us to be ‘overtaken’ by the social world without our even noticing.”
The transition that Lieberman is describing reads like the neurological basis for the adult development shift from self-sovereign form of mind to a socialised shift form of mind. I am left wondering what happens beyond that in neurological terms? Are there perhaps neurological markers and patterns for sensemaking shifts beyond a socialized form of mind?
Painting by Nigel Brown: I am – Socialism Capitalism (2000)