Archive for the ‘Social’ Category
Prosocial behavior is a central feature of human life and a major focus of research across the natural and social sciences. Most theoretical models of prosociality share a common assumption: Humans are instinctively selfish, and prosocial behavior requires exerting reflective control over these basic instincts. However, findings from several scientific disciplines have recently contradicted this view. Rather than requiring control over instinctive selfishness, prosocial behavior appears to stem from processes that are intuitive, reflexive, and even automatic. These observations suggest that our understanding of prosociality should be revised to include the possibility that, in many cases, prosocial behavior—instead of requiring active control over our impulses—represents an impulse of its own.
The social-brain hypothesis refers to a quantitative relationship between social-group size and neocortex volume in monkeys and apes. This relationship predicts a group size of approximately 150 for humans, which turns out to be the typical size of both social communities in small-scale societies and personal social networks in the modern world. This constraint on the size of social groups is partly cognitive and partly temporal. It gives rise to a layered structure in primate and human social groups that, in humans, reflects both emotional closeness in relationships and the frequency of contact. These findings have potentially important implications for the way in which human organizations are structured.
These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competences. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely, as well as manage conversations without suppressing anyone. If this demand is high (as in a practical task with a specific goal), then the work group may have to be smaller. The efficiency of such a group may then be influenced by heterogeneity in the mentalizing competences of its members.
Why are we influenced by the behaviour of complete strangers? Why does the brain register similar pleasure when I perceive something as ‘fair’ or when I eat chocolate? Why can we be so profoundly hurt by bereavement? What are the evolutionary benefits of these traits? The young discipline of ‘social cognitive neuroscience‘ has been exploring this fascinating interface between brain science and human behaviour since the late 1990s. Now one of its founding pioneers, Matthew D. Lieberman, presents the discoveries that he and fellow researchers have made. Using fMRI scanning and a range of other techniques, they have been able to see that the brain responds to social pain and pleasure the same way as physical pain and pleasure; and that unbeknown to ourselves, we are constantly “mind-reading” other people so that we can fit in with them. It is clear that our brains are designed to respond to and be influenced by others. For good evolutionary reasons, he argues, we are wired to be social. The implications are numerous and profound. Do we have to rethink what we understand by identity, and free will? How can managers improve the way their teams relate and perform? Could we organize large social institutions in ways that would work far better? And could there be whole new methods of education?
What is consciousness and how can a brain, a mere collection of neurons, create it? In Consciousness and the Social Brain, Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano lays out an audacious new theory to account for the deepest mystery of them all. The human brain has evolved a complex circuitry that allows it to be socially intelligent. This social machinery has only just begun to be studied in detail. One function of this circuitry is to attribute awareness to others: to compute that person Y is aware of thing X. In Graziano’s theory, the machinery that attributes awareness to others also attributes it to oneself. Damage that machinery and you disrupt your own awareness. Graziano discusses the science, the evidence, the philosophy, and the surprising implications of this new theory.
Although we generally experience our bodies as being biologically stable across time and situations, an emerging field of research is demonstrating that external social conditions, especially our subjective perceptions of those conditions, can influence our most basic internal biological processes—namely, the expression of our genes. This research on human social genomics has begun to identify the types of genes that are subject to social-environmental regulation, the neural and molecular mechanisms that mediate the effects of social processes on gene expression, and the genetic polymorphisms that moderate individual differences in genomic sensitivity to social context. The molecular models resulting from this research provide new opportunities for understanding how social and genetic factors interact to shape complex behavioral phenotypes and susceptibility to disease. This research also sheds new light on the evolution of the human genome and challenges the fundamental belief that our molecular makeup is relatively stable and impermeable to social-environmental influence.
The human visual system is particularly attuned to and remarkably efficient at processing social cues. We can effectively “read” others’ mental and emotional states and make snap judgments about their characters and dispositions, simply by watching them. Given what is clearly a close relationship between vision and social interaction, it has become increasingly clear to social psychologists seeking to better understand the functional and neuroanatomical mechanisms underlying social perception that vision plays a critical role in the development and maintenance of social exchange. Likewise, vision scientists have come to appreciate the profound impact people, as social agents, have had on the visual system, acknowledging just how important it is to consider the socially adaptive functions that system evolved to perform.