The Social Brain: Who is making a monkey of us?

Published by

Mark Leonard

Director, Mindfulness Connected and Strategic Partner at Talik & Co

The primary mechanism of the human ‘social brain’ is evolved to enable us to cooperate, care for each other and to do this we need to build long-term intimate attachments to others. It is taboo to tell others (including children) what to do in peoples like the Hadza (one of the few remaining hunter-gatherers that have an unbroken record of this life-style). Our ancestors developed as social beings in groups where hierarchy was absent – the ‘chimp model’ of human nature is a toxic myth. The ‘selfish theory‘ that competitive individualism is good because it drives innovation, and crumbs fall from the tables of the successful to every layer in the social cake, is manifestly failing.

Hierarchy emerged to organise society when populations grew in regions with high productivity, where is was necessary to protect territory. Coming together into tribes enabled us to outcompete small bands of wandering hunter gatherers (including other hominid species). Then came agriculture and the creation of urban living.

Watch this short video on the social brain in the workplace before reading on. Can you spot the problem?

The Social Brain

Awareness of threat to social status is a social construction of relatively recent society – it merely applies our ability to understand what is going through others minds (Theory of Mind) to a relatively new social arrangement. Social status is dependent on a number of cultural factors including the development of magical objects, the tribe, the nation and today, corporate identity. (The earliest ‘deity’ is only 40,000 yrs old – the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, see below.)

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It is important to recognises this, because this enables us to see that chronic stress (related to anxiety about social status) is a social construction – it is a natural response to hierarchical society, not a psychological flaw. Hierarchical systems of delegation and authority are always going to impinge on a sense of autonomy and social safety. People will accept the loss of autonomy when they believe in the group. They will only believe in the group if the group protects them and provides for their needs, however, needs are more than a roof and food, we need relationships built on trust and a sense of fairness.

Relying on personal development to escape the ‘rat race’ doesn’t change the nature of the hierarchy – which causes the sense of unfairness, drives the motivation to achieve, and is what causes the problem. At a population or group level, personal development will increase the need to achieve by increments and this will, sooner or later, backfire. Winners become increasingly skilled. Some individuals will push themselves to the limit and more and more will fail.

Chronic states of stress produced by hierarchical structures need to be managed, not just because they cause suffering, but because they are crippling productivity. At an organisational level, this must involve organisational change as well as personal development. The ‘top chimp’ has to be prepared to let go of his power and we have to stop trying to gain his approval. Instead, we must invest in trusting relationships that enable us to cooperate more effectively.

Our survival today may well depend on our ability to find ways of doing what our ancestors did. We need to share the fruits of our collective achievements in a way that is perceived as being fair and empower all strata of society to make a meaningful contribution to the collective good.