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Psychology

Why We Are Wired For Social Connection

After reading Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect by Dr. Matthew Lieberman, professor at UCLA and a social cognitive neuroscientist, I have a newfound perspective on human nature, social sharing, and I am beginning to understand just how our behaviors with technology reflect our natural state of being: social.

Matthew Lieberman says it perfectly:

“We are wired to be social. We are driven by deep motivations to stay connected with friends and family. We are naturally curious about what is going on in the minds of other people. And our identities are formed by the values lent to us from the groups we call our own. These connections lead to strange behaviors that violate our expectation of rational self-interest and make sense only if our social nature is taken as a starting point for who we are.”

Evolution, of course, has played a major role in how our brain developed. Our ancestors wouldn’t survived alone; instead, forming groups, a tribe, was a surefire way to ensure survival, growth, and reproduction. This series of survival behaviors made us who we are today.

Lieberman continues [emphasis by me]:

Most accounts of human nature ignore our sociality altogether. Ask people what makes us special and they will rattle off tried-and-true answers like ‘language,’ ‘reason,’ and ‘opposable thumbs.’ Yet the history of human sociality can be traced back at least as far as the first mammals more than 250 million years ago, when dinosaurs first roamed the planet. Our sociality is woven into a series of bets that evolution has laid down again and again throughout mammalian history. These bets come in the form of adaptations that are selected because they promote survival and reproduction. These adaptations intensify the bonds we feel with those around us and increase our capacity to predict what is going on in the minds of others so that we can better coordinate and cooperate with them. The pain of social loss and the ways that an audience’s laughter can influence us are no accidents. To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth. Yet these social adaptations also keep us a mystery to ourselves. We have a massive blind spot for our own social wiring. We have a theory of ‘who we are,’ and this theory is wrong.”

Lieberman also brings up a great point on evolution and the growth of our brains [emphasis by me]:

“The human brain didn’t get larger in order to make more MacGyvers. Instead, it got larger so that after watching an episode of MacGyver, we would want to get together with other people and talk about it. Our social nature is not an accident of having a larger brain. Rather, the value of increasing our sociality is a major reason for why we evolved to have a larger brain.”

There are 3 major elements to to our social hardwiring. Lieberman says:

“Just as there are multiple social networks on the Internet such as Facebook and Twitter, each with its own strengths, there are also multiple social networks in our brains, sets of brain regions that work together to promote our social well-being. These networks each have their own strengths, and they have emerged at different points in our evolutionary history moving from vertebrates to mammals to primates to us, Homo sapiens. Additionally, these same evolutionary steps are recapitulated in the same order during childhood.

Connection: Long before there were any primates with a neocortex, mammals split off from other vertebrates and evolved the capacity to feel social pains and pleasures, forever linking our well-being to our social connectedness. Infants embody this deep need to stay connected, but it is present through our entire lives.

Mindreading: Primates have developed an unparalleled ability to understand the actions and thoughts of those around them, enhancing their ability to stay connected and interact strategically. In the toddler years, forms of social thinking develop that outstrip those seen in the adults of any other species. This capacity allows humans to create groups that can implement nearly any idea and to anticipate the needs and wants of those around us, keeping our groups moving smoothly.

Harmonizing: The sense of self is one of the most recent evolutionary gifts we have received. Although the self may appear to be a mechanism for distinguishing us from others and perhaps accentuating our selfishness, the self actually operates as a powerful force for social cohesiveness. During the preteen and teenage years, adolescents focus on their selves and in the process become highly socialized by those around them. Whereas connection is about our desire to be social, harmonizing refers to the neural adaptations that allow group beliefs and values to influence our own.”

Social is a rich read that helps grow an understanding of ourselves, and in turn, others.

— PAUL JUN