Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect
C enturies ago, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote, “Pain and pleasure … govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.”There is little doubt that we are drawn to physical pleasure and work hard to avoid physical pain.But do they “govern us in all we do”?Is this all that we are?I think they govern us far less than we typically assume.The institutions and incentive structures of society operate largely in accordance with Bentham’s claim and thus are missing out on some of the most profound motivators of human behavior.
What Bentham and the rest of us typically overlook is that humans are wired with another set of interests that are just as basic as physical pain and pleasure.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.
Over the past two decades, my colleagues and I have created a new kind of science called social cognitive neuroscience .Using tools like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we have made startling discoveries of how the human brain responds to the social world—discoveries that were not possible before.These findingsrepeatedly reinforce the conclusion that our brains are wired to connect with other people.Some parts of the social mind can be traced back to the earliest mammals hundreds of millions of years ago.Other parts of the social mind evolved very recently and may be unique to humans.Understanding how these mental mechanisms drive our behavior is critical to improving the lives of individuals and organizations.This book will illuminate the neural mechanisms of the social mind and how they relate to making the most of our social lives.

Figure 5.4 The Director’s Task.Left shows the participant’s view; the right shows the director’s view. Adapted from Keysar, B., et al. (2000). Taking perspective in conversation. Psychological Science , 11(1), 32–38.
Notice there are three candles on different shelves within the grid, the smallest of which you can see but your partner cannot. What should you do when your partner tells you to move the “small candle”?Iroise Dumontheil and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore asked young children, teenagers, and adults to perform this task.When faced with the candle trials, the young children moved the wrong candle almost 80 percent of the time.Typically, the children would move the smallest candle—that is, they would move a candle that their partner could not see and thus could not have been referring to.Such behavior is egocentric because the children appear not to be considering their partner’s perspective and instead act as if their partner can see what they see.
Adults do much better than children in this task.And they should, given that their mentalizing ability is much better developed.However, adults do not do nearly as well as we might guess.Most of us would imagine that it might take slightly longer to get the tricky trials right because there is more to consider, but we also believe that we would get these trials right nearly every time.If you know your partner can’t see the smallest candle, why would you ever move that candle?However, in Dumontheil and Blakemore’s study, the adults made mistakes on the tricky requests 45 percent of the time.Yes, adults have the capacity to mentalize well, but as this study shows, they don’t apply this tendency reliably.This is probably because the brain regions that support accurate mentalizing require effort to work well, and we are wired to be mental couch potatoes whenever we can get away with it.We may mentalize a great deal, but that doesn’t mean we always do it well or that we

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