Motivating Millions

Your very social brain

Why do people form social groupings, combine into larger and larger assemblies, and ultimately form societies? It seems like a simple question, with obvious answers…

At the dawn of humanity there was increased safety to be found in numbers – certainly it’s much easier to take down a mammoth or defend against a hostile tribe when you operate as a collective rather than alone. Resource gathering is also more efficient when the labour is shared, and people are better able to focus on employing their specific skills.

The nurturing of the young is bolstered within like-minded communities. And of course, when part of a friendly group, one is also more likely to have access to a variety of potential mates (in both the comradely and carnal senses).

Friends with benefits 

Social behaviours provide clear evolutionary advantages then. And it goes deeper than that. The latest neurological and psychological research shows that being social is part of our makeup at the most fundamental biological level. According to Matthew D Lieberman, the Director of the University of California’s Social Cognitive Laboratory, our brains and our bodies are hardwired to be social.


Lieberman’s work shows how the brain shapes our beliefs (see diagram). The medial prefrontal cortex (A) seems to be involved in ensuring the beliefs and values of the society we mature in become our own beliefs and values. The ventro-lateral prefrontal cortex (B) seems to be involved in guiding our actions so that we get along with and like one another.

Evidence also shows that physical pain and social pain are tightly linked, with the same area of the brain – the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (C) – apparently responsible for both stimuli. In other words, the brain may not be able to fully distinguish between the pain of a broken arm and the pain of being rejected, excluded or cheated on.

Further reinforcing the social brain hypothesis is that it directly rewards collaboration. According to James Rilling’s functional MRI study for Emory University, the ventral striatum (D) seems to be more sensitive to group benefits rather than to one’s personal outcome, with a “biologically embedded” basis for altruistic behaviour.

According to Lauren Brent of Duke University, thanks to our social brains our bodies are intrinsically social too.

Release of the stress hormone cortisol has been shown to reduce when a friend shares our stressful situations with us. Endorphins – the body’s feel-good chemicals – are released in response to certain touch stimuli (you can guess which ones), yet are also liberated when we experience synchrony, sharing the same behaviours at the same time as others in our group. It’s believed that these mutual chemical rewards may lead to improved trust, an increased desire to be generous, and the encouragement pro-social decision making.

Getting down to business 

Modern businesses and organisations – just like those prehistoric clans and tribes – are fundamentally social constructs. As such they stand to benefit from deeper insight into what drives their employees, customers and stakeholders. By understanding more about the social way our minds and bodies behave, business leaders can move on from what is an increasingly out-dated model – a view of people responding solely to personal gain – to embrace thinking that understands our hardwired desire to share mutual, social benefits.

Ultimately, these new scientific insights can help us better engage with and enable behaviour change amongst our internal and external target audiences.

For more insights into the human operating system and how businesses and organisations can harness new understandings of how our brains are wired, check out the Human report, a free download from sustainable behaviour change agency How on Earth.



Lauren Brent, Friendship: Friends with many benefits, New Scientist May 24 2014

Matthew D Lieberman, Social: Why our brains are wired to connect

James K. Rilling, Emory Brain Imaging Studies Reveal Biological Basis for Human Cooperation

How on Earth, Human: New insights into the human operating system