Author: Matthew Lieberman
APA Style Citation
Lieberman, M. (2013). Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. New York: Crown Publishers.
Social by Matthew Lieberman explores the importance of social connections in the brain with regard to improving interactions with others and decision-making. Lieberman explains that our social brain is our default network. When we are not otherwise occupied, or when we daydream, our mind immediately moves to thinking about social interactions. Even when we are trying to focus on other tasks, thoughts of social interactions often creep into our mind and take over. Lieberman argues that this natural inclination to default to social issues indicates that this is how our brain is most comfortable and how humans are biologically wired. Our attention to the social network seems to be almost reflexive. Social regions of the brain are often associated with medial portions, whereas cognitive areas are often linked to the lateral portions of the brain. Evidence that social and cognitive portions of the brain are separate can be seen in children with Asperger’s, who score low on social tasks, but often score above average on tests of abstract reasoning because these disparate regions and responsibilities allow these individuals to excel in one area but not others.
Lieberman uses the 1984 presidential election between Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan as an example of the importance of making social connections. Concerns about Reagan’s age kept creeping into the campaign. In the last of debates leading to the election, Reagan used his wit to pick on Mondale’s “youth and inexperience”. Those who could hear the audience’s laughter in the debate saw a resounding success for Reagan, but those who could not hear the laughter of the audience believed that Mondale had won a definitive victory based on the evidence he presented. The debate ultimately catapulted Reagan into the lead because he was able to “connect” with voters. This social connection with Americans kept Reagan’s approval ratings high throughout his presidency.
Evolutionary psychologists speak to the benefits of creating bonds with others because it can lead to reproduction and survival advantages. If we can predict what is happening in the minds of others, we can better cooperate and coordinate with them. According to Lieberman, social adaptation moves from a connection, to mindreading (predicting the behaviors of others), to harmonizing as deeper levels of social connection develop. In order for an infant to thrive, they need to receive social support. This period of dependence on the mother is longer for humans than any other species. Lieberman argues that this is one of the first demonstrations of the importance of social connections and demonstrates how humans benefit and thrive from connections to others. Psychologists John Bowlby and Harry Harlow both explored the importance of early social attachment. Harlow contended that social support was as important, if not more important than biological necessities.
Conversely, social rejection or isolation is often more long lasting that physical pain. Social isolation speaks to the importance of socialization in that many consider solitary confinement to be the most severe of all punishment. In another example of the detriments of social isolation, a multi-nation study found that about 10 percent of children between the ages 12 and 16 are bullied on a regular basis. 85 percent of bullying behavior is non-physical, but can frequently lead to permanent damage. Those who have been bullied are seven times more likely to report being depressed and four times more likely to make a suicide attempt than others. Lieberman reports similarities between individuals who have been bullied and those who have chronic physical pain.
Humans are far more likely than others animals to work together; Lieberman refers to humans as “supercooperators”. Humans rely on each another and pool resources in the hopes of creating a better collective outcome. Some may help others because they believe that others will reciprocate in the long run. It is when we do not know if others are going to cooperate that things get more complex. In the prisoner’s dilemma, in which someone does not know if their partner will compete or cooperate, both parties are likely to compete as they feel that this provides the least risk and greatest potential benefit. However, in the prisoner’s dilemma people will still choose to cooperate more than one third of the time. Mutual cooperation produces the greatest amount of activity in the ventral striatum leading Lieberman to explain that cooperation activates the reward system as an end to itself. Lieberman argues that a similar feeling is found in altruistic acts. Even though we often believe that social supports are in place if we ever should need them, many studies have confirmed that happiness comes from the act of helping others in and of itself.
The ability to take another’s perspective also allows for smoother social connections because it allows us to more accurately predict behavior. Studies involving theory of mind allow researchers to determine if children can take the perspective of another. Generally, this ability begins to form in children between the ages of three and four. This skill may allow children to interact more smoothly with others and develop a sense of empathy and understanding that those without theory of mind cannot. Mirror neurons also allow us to learn by watching others. Faulty mirror neurons may provide an explanation for those suffering from autism, but Lieberman also discusses the limits to making these simple conclusions without further study. Theory of mind and mirror neurons help us understand others better or as Lieberman calls it, mindreading.
Lieberman closes by emphasizing the power that social networks can have on happiness and well being. Despite people’s drive to make more money, no link has been found between income and increased subjective well-being. There is however, a strong link between happiness and strong social networks. Lieberman worries that with more dependence on technology we are becoming less social and therefore limiting our present and future happiness. He points out the power of Facebook and other social networking sites as evidence for people’s desire to connect with others even in a more technical world. If business leaders can learn from research to motivate workers not by financial incentives but rather by relatedness, fairness, and status people will likely feel better and work harder. Those looking to raise money can make more progress by sharing stories about the people who are being helped rather than about the money being raised and educators can focus on creating places of learning in which students feel like they belong to a cohesive group. Social networks act on reward centers in the brain and activate the production of dopamine which in turn activates the prefrontal cortex and improves working memory a mutual benefit for all.
Other Related Resources
Matthew Lieberman’s Social Cognitive Lab: UCLA
TED Talk: The Brain and its superpowers, Matthew Lieberman
The Atlantic: Social Connections Make a Better Brain
Interview with author Matthew Lieberman
Social Psychology Network: Matthew Lieberman
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Cooperation vs. competition
False belief test
Hierarchy of needs
Theory of mind