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Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

Social-Why-Our-brains-are-wired-to-connect

In Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, sets out to “get clear about ‘who we are’ as social creatures and to reveal how a more accurate understanding of our social nature can improve our lives and our society.”

Centuries 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.

The Neural Overlap Between Social and Physical Pain

We believe that social and physical pain are radically different. Yet, Lieberman argues, the way our brains respond to them suggests they are “more similar than we imagine.”

Our brains evolved to experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain. By activating the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain, our experience of social pain helps ensure the survival of our children by helping to keep them close to their parents. The neural link between social and physical pain also ensures that staying socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and warmth. Given the fact that our brains treat social and physical pain similarly, should we as a society treat social pain differently than we do? We don’t expect someone with a broken leg to “just get over it.” And yet when it comes to the pain of social loss, this is a common response.

The Brain has Developed to Mindread Others
We’ve developed in a way to work with and adapt to others. We’re wired to develop social relationships.

While we tend to think it is our capacity for abstract reasoning that is responsible for Homo sapiens’ dominating the planet, there is increasing evidence that our dominance as a species may be attributable to our ability to think socially. The greatest ideas almost always require teamwork to bring them to fruition; social reasoning is what allows us to build and maintain the social relationships and infrastructure needed for teams to thrive.

There is a conflict between social and nonsocial thinking.

In many situations, the more you turn on the brain network for nonsocial reasoning, the more you turn off the brain network for social reasoning. This antagonism between social and nonsocial thinking is really important because the more someone is focused on a problem, the more that person might be likely to alienate others around him or her who could help solve the problem. Effective nonsocial problem solving may interfere with the neural circuitry that promotes effective thinking about the group’s needs.

We are Socially Malleable.
As always we adapt:

In Eastern cultures, it is generally accepted that only by being sensitive to what others are thinking and doing can we successfully harmonize with one another so that we may achieve more together than we can as individuals. We might think that our beliefs and values are core parts of our identity, part of what makes us us. But, as I’ll show, these beliefs and values are often smuggled into our minds without our realizing it.

“The self is more of a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we believe it to be.”

Social Networks for Social Networks

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.

Lieberman explores three primary social adaptations:

evolutionary history

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.

But so what? Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect goes on to explain how we can use these adaptations as principles for how to teach and learn, enhance well-being, and make the workplace more responsive to our social wiring.

Humans are adapted to be highly social, but the organizations through which we live our lives are not adapted to us. We are square (social) pegs being forced into round (nonsocial) holes. Institutions often focus on IQ and income and miss out on the social factors that drive us.

Your organization sucks at innovating

innovation

It’s easy to make your organization more innovative if you stop trying to show everyone how innovative you are.

What can you do to add more innovation to your organization? A question, no doubt, asked in every organization. There are simple accessible answers to that question all over the place and countless best-selling books. It’s an easy question to answer but it’s the wrong question.

There are generally two ways to become more innovative.

We can add things to what we’re already doing (innovation by addition) or we can take things away that get in the way of innovation (innovation by subtraction).

We tend to focus on additive innovation because it’s a lot easier than subtractive innovation.

We can add innovation days. Add time for employees to work on whatever they want. Add inspirational quotes to the walls for all employees to read and digest. It is as if we somehow believe reading these clichés and over-generalizations will nudge employees towards becoming the next Einstein.

But we all know this crap doesn’t work. So why do we do it?

Innovation by addition is tangible. All of this crap demonstrates activity. When asked the inevitable question, “What are you doing to improve innovation,” answers are easy and visible. It doesn’t work but it feels like we’re adding value.

Additive innovation quickly turns into activity for its own sake: innovation champions, innovation awards, innovation panels. You get the picture. The workforce, seeing this sop for what it is, disengages and goes back to doing things the same why they always did. (Only now they are even busier because they have to sort through this crap.)

But…here’s another thought.

Most of the businesses I know that truly innovate over long periods of time spend more time inverting the problem. Rather than ask how to promote innovation they ask what destroys innovation? And, remarkably, they stop doing as much of that stuff as they can.

Instead of looking for how to succeed at innovation, look for how to fail at it. It’s a fun exercise until you realize how many of those things you currently do at your company.

Want to kill innovation? Make people attend meetings all day. Send them emails every 30 seconds. Bombard them with too much work. Kill their enthusiasm. Make them write pages of pointless prose to justify something that should be simple. … You get the picture.

Subtractive innovation is not easy. When someone asks what you’re doing to encourage innovation you can’t point to a meeting, champion, or an award. Answering that question with what you stopped doing, or some process you removed because it was no longer adding value requires two skills that are easily dismissed in the sound byte corporate culture: thought and nuance.

The Joy of Finding Things Out

Canadian filmmaker Reid Gower created the Feynman Series, a trilogy of physicist Richard Feynman’s penetrating insight into domains outside of physics. Consider the first, Richard Feynman on Beauty.

Honours, the second part, shows Feynman’s healthy disrespect for authority.

I don’t like honors. I’m appreciated for the work that I did, and for people who appreciate it, and I notice that other physicists use my work. I don’t need anything else. I don’t think there’s any sense to anything else. I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize. I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors. It bothers me, honors. Honors is epilets, honors is uniforms. My poppa brought me up this way. I can’t stand it, it hurts me.

When I was in High School, one of the first honors I got was to be a member of the Arista, which is a group of kids who got good grades. Everybody wanted to be a member of the Arista. I discovered that what they did in their meetings was to sit around to discuss who else was worthy to join this wonderful group that we are. OK So we sat around trying to decide who would get to be allowed into this Arista. This kind of thing bothers me psychologically for one or another reason. I don’t understand myself.

Honors, and from that day to this, always bothered me. I had trouble when I became a member of the National Academy of Science, and I had ultimately to resign. Because there was another organization, most of whose time was spent in choosing who was illustrious enough to be allowed to join us in our organization. Including such questions as: ‘we physicists have to stick together because there’s a very good chemist that they’re trying to get in and we haven’t got enough room…’. What’s the matter with chemists? The whole thing was rotten . Because the purpose was mostly to decide who could have this honor. OK? I don’t like honors.

Filtering Nonsense

meeting2

When I first drafted this post, I tentatively called it how to get fired.

That might not be entirely true but if you follow the advice below, you might quickly find yourself with more time on your hands. Nothing gets you uninvited to meetings quicker than being labelled a troublemaker.

With that warning, try these ideas the next time you are in a meeting.

Ask Why.

Simply ask people to walk you through their thinking. Why do you think that? Walk me through your logic.

We’re simply too busy these days to have as many opinions as we do and asking why quickly sorts out the people who have done the work from the people who haven’t.

In the process you’ll expose some assumptions that should be explicit and visible.

Over the years, I’ve found that simply asking why and listening to the quality of the response is the best bullshit filter. If answers come back in cliches and generalizations, that’s an indication that more thinking is needed.

Define Success.

What does success look like? The second thing is to simply ask people to define success in clear and unambiguous terms before something gets underway.

If you’re taking on a new project or starting a new service, you clearly expect some outcome, right? So it should be somewhat logical that you’ll be able to say we expect X, Y, and Z to happen and if they don’t then this will be considered a failure.

Simply asking, what success looks like in specifics tells you a lot. I think you’d be surprised at the number of people who prefer to throw a dart at the wall and then draw a bullseye around it. Or, then again, maybe you wouldn’t.

Now watch. If X, Y, and Z are reported for a few weeks and then somehow disappear, something is probably amiss. Dig deeper.

Another simple idea is to simply ask people to explain the best case against their own argument.

Of course none of this is going to get you promoted. There are other ways to do that.

Over to you

What are you tips to improve the quality of discussion in meetings and/or filter nonsense?

Jeff Bezos’s Reading List

Bezos

The back of Brad Stone’s excellent new book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, contains a list of a dozen books “widely read by executives and employees that are integral to understanding” Amazon. We can now add Bezos’s reading list to similar ones from Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

The Remains of the day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Jeff Bezos’s favorite novel, about a butler who wistfully recalls his career in service during wartime Great Britain. Bezos has said he learns more from novels than nonfiction.

Sam Walton: Made in America, by Sam Walton

In his autobiography, Walmart’s founder expounds on the principles of discount retailing and discusses his core values of frugality and a bias for action—a willingness to try a lot of things and make many mistakes. Bezos included both in Amazon’s corporate values.

Memos from the Chairman, by Alan Greenberg

A collection of memos to employees by the chairman of the now defunct investment bank Bear Stearns. In his memos, Greenberg is constantly restating the bank’s core values, especially modesty and frugality. His repetition of wisdom from a fictional philosopher presages Amazon’s annual recycling of its original 1997 letter to shareholders.

The Mythical Man-Month, by Frederick P. Brooks Jr.

An influential computer scientist makes the counter-intuitive argument that small groups of engineers are more effective than larger ones at handling complex software projects. The book lays out the theory behind Amazon’s two pizza teams.

Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, by Jim Collins

The famous management book about why certain companies succeed over time. A core ideology guides these firms, and only those employees who embrace the central mission flourish; others are “expunged like a virus” from the companies.

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t, by Jim Collins

Collins briefed Amazon executives on his seminal management book before its publication. Companies must confront the brutal facts of their business, find out what they are uniquely good at, and master their fly wheel, in which each part of the business reinforces and accelerates the other parts.

Creation: Life and How to make it, By Steve Grand

A video-game designer argues that intelligent systems can be created from the bottom up if one devises a set of primitive building blocks. The book was influential in the creation of Amazon Web Services, or AWS, the service that popularized the notion of the cloud.

The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen

An enormously influential business book whose principles Amazon acted on and that facilitated the creation of the Kindle and AWS. Some companies are reluctant to embrace disruptive technology because it might alienate customers and undermine their core business, but Christensen argues that ignoring potential disruption is even costlier.

The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvements, by Eliyahu Goldratt

An exposition of the science of manufacturing written in the guise of the novel, the book encourages companies to identify the biggest constraints in their operations and then structure their organizations to get the most out of those constraints. The Goal was a bible for Jeff Wilke and the team that fixed Amazon’s fulfillment network.

Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation, by James Womanck

The production philosophy pioneered by Toyota calls for a focus on those activities that create value for the customer and the systematic eradication of everything else.

Data-Driven Marketing: The 15 Metrics Everyone in Marketing Should Know, by Mark Jeffery

A guide to using data to measure everything from customer satisfaction to the effectiveness of marketing. Amazon employees must support all assertions with data, and if the data has a weakness, they must point it out or their colleagues will do it for them.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Taleb

The scholar argues that people are wired to see patterns in chaos while remaining blind to unpredictable events, with massive consequences. Experimentation and empiricism trumps the easy and obvious narrative.

Marcus Aurelius on How to Act and Four Habits of Thought to Eliminate

Marcus Aurelius
Some advice from Marcus Aurelius in Meditations:

Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without
forethought, with misgivings.

Don’t gussy up your thoughts.

No surplus words or unnecessary actions.

Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen, a
Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a soldier and
patiently awaiting his recall from life. Needing no oath or
witness.

Cheerfulness. Without requiring other people’s help. Or
serenity supplied by others.

To stand up straight-not straightened.

Later he adds this bit of timeless wisdom:

Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust, or lose your sense of shame, or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill will, or hypocrisy, or a desire for things best done behind closed doors.

Four habits of thought to eliminate.

Four habits of thought to watch for, and erase from your mind when you catch them. Tell yourself:

* This thought is unnecessary.
* This one is destructive to the people around you.
* This wouldn’t be what you really think (to say what you don’t think—the definition of absurdity.)

And the fourth reason for self-reproach: that the more divine part of you has been beaten and subdued by the degraded mortal part—the body and its stupid self-indulgence.

The best way to read Meditations is not necessarily from start to finish. Another idea, is pair it with Montaigne’s How to Live and read random pages from one every few days.