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February 13, 2017

Social Connection – A Super Power

[hhab-author] [hhab-social]

What are the signs of social connection in your organisation?


Before you start reading this article consider these questions…

Do people trust each other, give each other the benefit of the doubt?

Do you celebrate success?

Are people open to discuss what’s going on with them?

Are people connected, working well across the organisation?

Do people reach out for help and support?

Are people kind and helpful to each other?

Do people discuss their performance and ask for feedback?

How does the brain respond?

There are different theories about why humans developed a large brain, and particularly a large prefrontal cortex, one rests on our abilities in logical, rational processing.

Another theory is that our brain developed to make connections and understand others and we needed the large prefrontal cortex to do that especially as tribes got bigger and we needed to cooperate with more people. We’re shaped by our social interactions and suffer when our social bonds are threatened or broken. Our well-being depends on connections with others: this is a primary need in the brain. (In other words Maslow got his hierarchy of human needs wrong: physical needs followed by safety needs, followed by social needs… Social relationships are as essential as food, water and shelter.) We can’t survive without social connection. A baby only survives because it can attract a carer who puts the baby’s needs before their own. If humans are rejected from their group, they cannot survive.

And all this has an impact on the way we manage businesses. Our brain has evolved to connect to others and the implications in business are often undervalued.

Do you have in-groups and out-groups?

One of the organising principles of the brain is to categorise; it’s a shortcut that helps our brain to be more efficient.

We automatically place people into in-group and out-group and this happens at work too. Our in-group is the people we see as like ourselves. Our out-group is the people who are “different.” Once categorised, our brain filters all new information in accordance with the category, so it’s hard to think of someone as friend if our initial judgement of them was foe. We store broad representations for our different categories, says David Amodio of New York University.

This all happens in a nanosecond, out of conscious awareness, but for business it means that rituals like induction, team off-sites and sharing common goals across business units are important for breaking down initial out-group judgements. This becomes even more important in teams that work remotely where there may be little opportunity for the personal encounters which can break down initial judgements.

What’s the level of social pain?

Research at UCLA by social neuroscientist Matt Lieberman and his wife Naomi Eisenberger found that the brain networks for physical pain are also used for social pain (the “pain” of rejection or humiliation, for example). Whilst social pain may feel different, just as the pain of a stubbed toe feels different to stomach cramps, the networks processing it in the brain are the same.

People around the world, in many languages, use descriptions of physical pain to express social pain: “she broke my heart,” “he hurt my feelings…” It turns out this is more than metaphorical: social pain is real pain. The connections are so close that the Lieberman and Eisenberger research also found, astonishingly, that social pain can be alleviated by taking conventional painkillers. If you’re feeling hurt because you haven’t been invited to an off-site or the boss forgot to ask you to a meeting it might actually help to take an aspirin.

Lieberman says, “The things that cause us to feel pain are things that are evolutionarily recognised as threats to our survival and the existence of social pain is a sign that evolution has treated social connection like a necessity, not a luxury.”

The implication for business is that we should pay much more attention to the impact of social rejection: issues like giving negative feedback in public, challenging social settings and the importance of teamwork.

What’s the level of social rewards?

There are two theories about why we help others. The first suggests that we do what we know is the norm or adopt the best behaviour in our culture. It is not our actual desire to be nice but we worry that if we are not nice, there will be negative consequences so we override our natural instinct to be selfish and help others.

The second theory is that we are ‘wired’ to be nice.  In the jargon to act pro-socially. For example Warneken and Tomasello found that children as young as 18 months will make efforts to help someone when they see that the other person, even an adult, cannot accomplish a goal on their own. Helping others seems to be something we are born to do. There is a lovely video demonstrating their research which we have listed in the popular references.

Being nice to each other

Neuroscience studies show that the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC ) becomes active when we perceive something which is of value to us. When it is rewarding.  One way of studying pro-social behaviour, being nice, is to look at this area of the brain. Lots of research has shown that people prefer resources to be divided fairly across the group. For example, Elizabeth Tricomi found this region is active when we see others sharing fairly. In another study Mitchell and Zaki found a similar result in an experiment where people had an opportunity to make money for themselves. In some cases, making money was fair to others; in other cases it was unfair. Getting money usually shows strong activity in the reward regions of the brain but in cases where obtaining the money put at risk social connections, participants showed less activity in these regions. The value of money was over ridden by the risk to social connection. Being nice is rewarding.

In a second experiment Zaki looked at how people respond to delayed rewards. We know people tend to want what they like right away and that they discount the value of things, be that goods or events that are in the future. The research looked at whether this is also true with being nice.  For example, if you see a great gift for your daughter do you buy it and then keep it for the three months until her birthday (delaying your pleasure in giving the gift) or do you tell her you have it because it makes you feel good right now, even though it spoils her surprise?  Zaki found people were impatient when it was a gift for themselves and when it was also a gift for someone else. People made decisions based on how soon they could give the surprise. The research suggests we are reluctant to wait to be nice to someone else. This is good in that it drives nice behaviour but the motivation for the behaviour is really about the good feeling we get when we do something nice for another person. So being nice is inborn but it looks like only because we get something out of it! But maybe that doesn’t matter.

Failing to utilise these ideas in business means we’re missing out on the power of social rewards. Connection to a social group is critically important for our emotional well-being; positive feedback about increased social reputation lights up reward pathways in the brain. Being treated fairly by others also increases activity in the ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, two key components of the brain’s reward system.

This research about pro social behaviour goes a long way to explain why we are nice to each other. Why people tend to form bonds at work which are based on social not economic gain and why people don’t actually act in a narrow self-interested way, focused on gaining benefits for themselves, and avoiding physical threats but do things for others.

This also explains why so many people give their time and expertise freely: as volunteers and fundraisers, mentors and informal coaches.

The research suggests social reward is hard-wired into us, and it’s a motivational end in itself; being connected makes us feel good.

How we understanding other people

Another social skill our brain has developed is the ability to understand what another person is thinking, and their goals and motivations, to be able to predict, to some extent, other people’s behaviour. In many ways, we need to be able to read other people’s minds – and we can.

We use these skills every day. For example, we make assumptions based on circumstances, gender and appearance, which enable us to cooperate. (“You’re like me, you’re not a threat to me, we can work together…”) This ability is not part of our general ability to think and analyse. We use our prefrontal cortex network for analytical thinking, but a completely different part of the brain – the default network – is used for understanding other people.

Neuroscientist Matt Lieberman, and others have found that the medial prefrontal region is the area that enables you to be influenced by others. The more active the medial prefrontal region is when someone is trying to persuade you (for example to adopt a new strategy, or assign resources to a project), the more likely you’ll be to do it.

In his book Social: why our brains are wired to connect Lieberman says that our minds are less like hermetically sealed vaults that separate each of us from one another, and more like “Trojan horses”: letting in the beliefs of other people without our realising the extent to which we’re being influenced. It has the effect of ensuring that we have the same kind of beliefs and values as people around us, creating the social harmony we depend on.

This network for mind-reading goes quiet when we’re busy with cognitive kinds of thinking like solving a question of strategy or problem solving. And when we’re engaged in understanding the motives of others, the mind-reading type of thinking we quiet the cognitive circuitry.

As soon as the cognitive thinking or task is done the social network (the default or mentalising system) is activated. These two work a bit like a see-saw: one is active (up), the other is quiet (down).

Understanding others increases learning

The mentalising system is active, like a reflex, whenever we’re not engaged in a task or analytical thinking. And if we’re primed to be thinking about the motivations of others, we will be more likely to notice and understand them.

And the more this network is activated when hearing about an idea, or learning new things, the more likely you are to pass on the new information to other people. Learning with a view to helping other people activates this network. And it makes us more effective at learning than when we use our analytical brain. It seems we can’t do both at the same time.

This has significant implications for us at work. Organisations tend to focus on systems and processes, and this pushes leaders to think rationally rather than socially. Over time this rational thinking becomes a habit – it’s the way things are done – and less and less attention is paid to social connections. Leaders will be missing lots of social cues, and the information and opportunities which could provide relational solutions to problems. They end up focusing on analytical solutions: “we just need to run the numbers.” Yet many of the toughest business challenges require social solutions (engagement, motivation, productivity… to mention just three).

Interestingly, the degree to which your own medial prefrontal region has been active whilst reading this is indicative of how likely you are to discuss these ideas with other people.

Where do you see social connection in the business?

We have looked in more depth in other webinars and articles, at how the need for social connection plays out in business policy and practice:

  • Trust in the workplace
  • Engagement
  • Social rewards
  • Empathy
  • Teamwork

You can access these webinars and articles on the web site.


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