Home » Matthew Lieberman: The Social Brain and Its Superpowers (Full Transcript)

Matthew Lieberman: The Social Brain and Its Superpowers (Full Transcript)

See, rock-paper-scissor novices have a variety of tendencies that can be exploited by more experienced players. For instance, inexperienced male players have an increased likelihood of starting with a throw of “rock,” because rocks are implicitly associated with power. And this gives a smart opponent the upper hand.

Now in 2006 this guy, Bob Cooper emerged victorious over 500 other competitors to be crowned Rock-Paper-Scissors World Champion. And yes that’s the thing. Now Bob Cooper is the real deal, he even beat a math professor who chose his sequence of throws based on the digits of Pi. Now after he won he revealed his secret. He said, “It’s about predicting what your opponent predicts you’ll throw. It’s about manipulating what they think you’ll throw, and then getting inside their heads to see if you’ve successfully misdirected them.” He said he grew the beard so that he looked like a tough guy who would throw rock a lot and then said, “How often did you see me throwing rock in the finals?”

So Cooper has this amazing talent for reading minds, but so do each of you. Every one of us is a mind reader countless times each day. Let me give you an example. Imagine I had come up on stage followed by someone holding a gun to my head. And I then proceeded to declare that Justin Bieber is the greatest musical talent of this or any other generation. You would be easily moved from the visible signs, the gun, my gender, my age to the invisible, my thoughts and feelings, my fear of being shot if I don’t do as I’ve been instructed.

Now our mind reading abilities aren’t perfect, far from it, but it is extraordinary that we can do this at all, given that none of us have ever seen a thought or feeling. The fact that we can peer into the minds of those around us and imagine their responses to nearly any situation gives us an unparalleled capacity for cooperation and collaboration. This is unquestionably a social superpower. Then you might think that this is just another application of our general ability to think and reason analytically, use our big old prefrontal cortex to solve nearly any problem we’re given. You might think this, but you’d be wrong.

Our ability to think socially is so essential to our survival that evolution gave us a separate brain system just for this kind of thinking. So, on the outer surface of your brain, there’s this network that’s just for doing almost any kind of analytical thinking you can imagine, logical reasoning down to holding a phone number in mind while you hunt for your phone. And then there’s this other network, more on the midline of the brain that’s just for social thinking for mind reading. We know that this network for social thinking tends to be quieted down by other kinds of thinking.

So, it’s as if these two networks for social and analytical thinking are on two ends of a see-saw; when one goes up, the other goes down. We also know that this network for social thinking comes on like a reflex. Whenever you finish doing any kind of analytical thinking, whenever your brain gets a chance to rest, to idle this network for mind-reading pops up immediately.

And if I were to ask you in a minute from now — OK, to do some kind of mind reading task — then right now before I had asked you, the extent to which this network spontaneously and preemptively pops up, the better you’ll do on the mind reading task when I asked you to do it. Just like seeing this word ‘FACE’ primes you and get you ready to see this illusion as two faces rather than as a vase, this network for social thinking coming on preemptively before you walk into the next situation of your life, gets you ready to see the actions around you in terms of the minds behind them. Evolution has made a bet that the best thing for your brain to do in any spare moment is to get ready to see the world socially.

And finally this network also comes on when we’re taking in new information. My lab’s found that when you’re watching a trailer for an upcoming movie, the more this network pops up, the more likely you’ll be to go get on Facebook and tell your friends about it. This network switches us from being information consumers to information DJs, motivating us to share what we learn with those around us. Something essential to the success of mankind.

So, if social pain keeps us close to important others, and our mind reading abilities keep us living well with one another, well, what’s our kryptonite? Simple. Not appreciating the value of our social superpowers is our kryptonite. We don’t realize the importance of social in our lives. And when we do we too easily forget again.

Getting more social is the secret to making us smarter, happier and more productive. Let me take those in turn. In the classroom being social is treated as the enemy of learning but it turns out that if you learn in order to teach someone else you learn better than if you learn in order to take a test. Research in my lab and another has shown that when you’re socially motivated to learn, your social brain can do the learning, and it can do it better than the analytical network that you typically activate when you try to memorize. This idea of learning for teaching was actually implemented as a national standard in France. After the French Revolution there was a massive teacher shortage and children were recruited to teach other children. And it was wildly successful, but when France got back on its feet, it forgot about social and went back to the traditional classroom.

Let’s talk about business. We know that great leaders make teams more productive.

But what makes for a great leader?

According to a large recent survey, a leader who has an analytically-minded focus and is focused on getting results has relatively small chance of being seen as a great leader. But if that same leader also has strong social skills, the chance of being seen as a great leader skyrockets. Social, social skills are a multiplier, they allow us to leverage the analytical abilities of those around us. If we’re really connected with one another on a team, each of us will work to complement the strengths and weaknesses of others on the team. Remember you can’t build a rocket by yourself.

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