Book review: Social: Why our brains are wired to connect

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Title: Social: Why our brains are wired to connect​
Author: Matthew D. Lieberman
ISBN: 978-0199645046
Reviewer: David Evans, Burn Bridge Associates
Reviewer's rating: 3 out of 5

Oxford University Press - Social

Okay: so this is a serious and challenging book. You need to know that right from the start. Written by UCLA Professor, Lieberman, who heads the social cognitive neuroscience laboratory, it is a journey into the exploration of our social-cognitive processes.

His premise is that some parts of our social mind can be traced back to the earliest mammals whereas other parts have evolved fairly recently and may be a fundamental part of what makes humans distinct from other species.

It is replete with the results of experiments conducted by the author, his colleagues and many others in the neuroscience, psychology and sociology world; and, it charts the rich use of technology and neuroscience to nourish our understanding of ourselves and others.

A fascinating early lesson from the book is about the interaction between social and non-social reasoning.

Social reasoning is the way in which we build and maintain social relationships. Lieberman asserts that our brain cannot process both types of reasoning at the same time and therefore dedicates itself to one or other in balance.

Some estimates suggest that we spend 20% of our thinking time in social reasoning; working out what is going on around us, how the relationships with those around us are functioning and how we see ourselves compared with others. The author goes on to reframe the needs-hierarchy developed by Maslow, suggesting that the level 3 – social factors – could reasonably be seen as the fundamental first level (pushing physiological and safety considerations up the levels).

Lieberman also develops his theme by investigating the concept of social pain. Extensive experiments have been conducted to show how social pain is neurally processed in a similar way as physical pain. Linked to this is a discussion on separation and attachment, using experiments carried out amongst various mammalian species.

Using brain-activity mapping technology has enabled scientists and psychologists to understand much more acutely how different parts of the brain react to changes in social circumstance: for example, the same region of the brain is triggered both at times of physical pain and during times when a sense of social exclusion is being experienced. Lieberman uses cases of bullying to make his point.

He also uses the concept of fairness to demonstrate how social cues work.

Fair treatment implies that others value us and that when there are resources to be shared out we are likely to get our fair share. Lieberman says that the same brain regions associated with loving the taste of chocolate (or any other physical pleasures) are triggered when we are being treated fairly.

Hence he refers to the idea of social rewards (c.f. the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the choices we make when presented with immediate or deferred reward).

Fairness crops up again toward the end of the book, when Lieberman considers the value of social awareness in the organisational context. He uses the framework developed by David Rock - SCARF – to explain how social cues drive personal motivation (SCARF is an acronym for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness).

The author talks about our mentalising system which operates in tasks requiring cognitive processes such as self-reference and understanding of other's intentions. He suggests that when we take in new information we are simultaneously beginning a process of considering with whom we can share this information, and how, for greatest effectiveness.

This seems to propose that we have a natural networking mindset, to a greater or lesser extent.

Furthermore, he opines that we use a form of ‘mindreading’ to anticipate the desires and worries of people in our social milieu so that we can act to make their lives a little better.

In addition to mentalising, Lieberman explains about mirroring and the compelling evidence for the idea that this creates a crucial social bonding. Mirroring - the behaviour in which one person subconsciously imitates the gesture, speech pattern, or attitude of another - often occurs in social situations, particularly in the company of close friends or family and leads to the development of rapport and empathy.

Developing a sense of empathy prepares us for helping others in some way.

Lieberman evokes Nietzsche in describing the development of our self as typically something constructed, primarily by the people in our lives.

Our parents, or at least those close to us during childhood, and other early influences determine the person we become, and the author describes the impact of cultural trends and social norms as evidence for the way our personality develops. He goes on to a discussion about conforming versus harmonising (the practice of recognising, accepting and integrating human and social differences).

This is too complex a book to be able to capture its full essence, although the title does a good job of that!

Perhaps a quote from it would suffice: “We all need people to love and respect, and we all need people to love and respect us”.

Despite its subject-matter and academic depth, it has been written in an easy style and is full of anecdotes to illustrate key points. However, it is not bedtime reading: it requires your complete attention and it is a specialist book for those with a commitment to understanding more about how humans tick.

The pay-out for your effort is that reading it brings great rewards in knowledge and insight: I’d suggest it is a good-to-read for those in the world of organisational development and leadership.

About Jamie Lawrence

Jamie Lawrence, HRZone

Jamie Lawrence is editor of global online HR publication and community HRZone.com. He is committed to driving forward the HR agenda and making sure that HR directors have the knowledge and insight necessary to make HR felt across the whole organisation. He regularly speaks to audiences of 250+ and has interviewed key HR industry names, including Daniel H. Pink. He has worked previously as a small business journalist and a copywriter and has published non-fiction that reached #2 on the NYT Children's Bestseller List. In his spare time Jamie likes writing fiction, films, fitness and eating out.

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