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

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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So what percentage of leaders do score high on being both results-focused and having strong social skills?

Less than 1%. Because we don’t recognize the value of social, we’re promoting the wrong people into leadership positions and not giving them the social skills training they need once they get there. And as a side note, because of the social brain’s wiring when you praise an employee’s performance you’re doing the same thing to their brains reward system that giving them a raise would do but at no cost to the company.

Finally happiness. We know that social connection is one of the best predictors of happiness and well-being. And in contrast, increasing wealth is not a very good predictor of happiness and well-being. Nevertheless over the past 50 years we have come to value the pursuit of wealth more and more, often at the expense of our social well-being, spending more time at the office and away from family and friends.

Last month I received an outrageous offer for a huge sum of money to move to Russia for four months for each of the next two years to help train neuroscientists. It was the kind of money that an academic only dreams about. And frankly I became completely obsessed with the idea of going, so obsessed that I couldn’t sleep for days on end. But ultimately I decided not to go. See, my wife and son are the bedrock of my social well-being, and they weren’t going to be going. My time with them can’t be replaced by the money that I would make in Russia. My son will only be seven once, and no amount of money could ever make him seven again and give me back those moments that I will now be able to share with him.

For those of you with full grown children how much money would you spend to have a few more months with them back when they were seven years old? Now if I needed to do this to put food on the table, I would go in a heartbeat, no question about it. But we have what we need, we have enough money. This money would let us buy nicer cars and maybe a bigger house. But if I went it would be at the risk of sacrificing my own social well-being and my family’s too. These are the real roots of happiness and even knowing that, even studying the social brain like I do, this was one of the single hardest decisions of my life.

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Not knowing in our guts the value of social, the real literal value of social is our greatest kryptonite. And if we want future generations to be smarter, happier and more productive, we need to be teaching them about their social superpowers from a very young age and helping them train these abilities. You might not be able to explain to your kids why they need to learn algebra. But there is no question that strengthening and understanding these social superpowers will help our children for their entire lives.

Thank you.


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