Social brains, social networks, big ideas and social change

January 15, 2009 by
Filed under: Education Matters 

The Social Brain project tries to wed together three elements:


1) big ‘paradigm ideas’ or philosophical ‘meta-norms’;


2) new knowledge in decision-making theory (largely neuroscience, the behavioural sciences, the study of forms of social organisation);

3) practical application of 1) and 2) to social challenges.

This is to some extent an ambitious remit. But if we don’t include the big paradigm ideas we miss something out. This is because thinkers, practitioners and policymakers can become gripped by a single view of things that is so commonplace it goes unseen. The behavioural economist Shiller predicted the credit crunch on the grounds of a kind of mass groupthink. We might say that those running our western societies (and perhaps some non-western societies too) have been gripped by a form of groupthink for the past thirty years or so. What has held them captive has been a conception of human decision-making processes as articulated by the simplifying assumptions of ‘economic man’. These assumptions were that consumers and traders alike acted on purely rational and self-interested grounds. This made the job of Government the facilitation of markets that did not obstruct the smooth functioning of said rationality. But of course we are now living with the aftermath of policy driven by these simplifying assumptions – the credit crunch and an impending global depression.

So it’s important to consider the big ideas because they become internalised and act as ‘meta-norms’ that govern our thinking without our really being reflectively aware of this fact.

On the other hand, the point of introducing into the debate new knowledge in decision-making theory is twofold: it can be used to put to bed the defunct paradigm in the face of stalwarts who won’t give it up; and it can be used to help construct a successor paradigm that is better at predicting behaviour and facilitating the kind of socio-economic world we want.

And of course it is important to bring in practical application. For there is little point in connecting the big ideas with new knowledge in order to construct a new paradigm if this does not gain traction on social reality. Moreover, there should be bottom-up feedback that informs and fine-tunes the policies that the paradigm yields, lest groupthink set in again.

On Tuesday I went to a conference that was the product of a project that tries to weave together all these three elements (a project after the heart of the Social Brain project and it’s namesake too!).

One of the project’s big ideas is that the brain has evolved into the rational information-processing hub it is because it has evolved to cope with considerable social complexity. A large element in this complexity is representing to oneself other people’s thinking in order to build alliances and coalitions (e.g. friendships of different orders of closeness). This is something we do without thinking (as it were). But in fact, if we reflect on it, this kind of mental representation is incredibly complex. For example, we can understand with relative ease a sentence such as:

(a) ‘Jack thought that Jill was thinking what he was thinking and that both desired what their parents wanted.’

But this sentence stands for an incredibly complex thought. A regular old first-order thought such as ‘the apple is red’ is about an object, an apple. But the thought ‘Jill is thinking about Roger’ is about what Jill is thinking about. This means it represents both Jill and what she thinks – it has two layers of ‘aboutness’ or what philosophers call ‘intentionality’. The sentence (a) quoted above has five layers of intentionality! The social brain theory in evolutionary psychology holds that it is representing this kind of complexity that primarily caused our brains to evolve to the size they did.

This challenges the paradigm idea of individualism – that our brains evolved solely to represent the world truthfully in order that we might be able to better predict its behaviour and thus satisfy our self-interested desires (so that, for example, we be able to obtain food better by understanding the causal relation between a pack of hyenas following a scent and there being a dead animal somewhere in the vicinity). Of course our brains did evolve to be as big and clever as they are to do this. But social brain theory simply challenges the idea that this is solely what they evolved to do.

Individualists with this view of human nature (like Hobbes or Locke) then proposed a theory of social cooperation where humans come together in order to better satisfy their individual desires. But if the social brain theory is right, such theory and its presumed individualism is bunk.

This is a great example of how new knowledge is challenging a paradigm idea and giving us a clue about what to replace it with – a thoroughly social conception of human decision-making. And now that ‘economic man’ has fallen, that is just the kind of conception we need to better predict behaviour and create the kind of world we want. But there’s more. The project I visited yesterday applies knowledge from evolutionary psychology to policy – it also attempts practical application. For example, there seems to be an optimal maximum number (150 – dubbed ‘Dunbar’s number‘) beyond which social organisation becomes difficult (emotional closeness dissipates, the cognitive task of keeping in mind the members of the group’s attitudes and alliances becomes too hard, peer pressure as social sanction for the sake of social cohesion begins to fail). If you organise – say – institutional departments in excess of this number they will begin to function badly, for they are fighting against the evolved parametrics of the brain.

So there you go. A very good example of the kind of integrated three-level approach to understanding human decision-making to which the Social Brain project is committed. We are not alone.

I shall be blogging on other ideas that came up at the ‘Social Brains and Social Networks’ conference over the next few days.


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  • Bert Hartmann

    The economic man has fallen and this has become apparent in the mature economies of the world especially in Europe where conservation and sustainability are now in place. The United States is realizing this as well due to their current economic pitfall which has caused a slight change in the consumer mindset due to simply not having as much cash in hand. Hopefully they(we) will learn from this and begin to establish a new type of consumer mentality that is not as wasteful.

    What is worrisome is that the developing nations, with China in particular, will not adopt new economic policies that work towards a sustained economy that is not reliant on the consumer being able to purchase items beyond their means. Also, it is hard to tell the people within these developing countries that a high level of consumption is not sustainable. They feel a sense of entitlement which is understandable considering how far along they have progressed and you cannot blame them for wanting what others have.

    The issues with a high level of consumption caused by the economic man both individually and through corporations and governments are many but there are two main issues that many people point out:
    1. A loss of self which is replaced by material items.
    2. Detriment to the environment which might be irreversible.

    We live on a finite planet yet we consume at infinite levels. With the emerging economies and their increased buying power I can only see the two points above becoming more of an issue. This might be the natural order that we have to go through unless the current mindset can be replaced.

  • Matt Grist

    Hi Bert,

    You cite the fact that while people in the West are beginning to change their paradigm with regards to economic activity people elsewhere may weel feel that by rights they should be allowed to consume as much as they want. I’m not quite sure this is as doom-laden a prospect as some suggest. Outside of the West there are philosophies of harmony, balance and purity (just like there are in the West) that could be harnessed to make development take a certain course. Also, do non-Western countries want to make the same mistakes as us?

    A bigger problem might be that the western economy is based on consumption which drives export-led industrialisation in developing countries.

    Best wishes, Matt

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