Social Cognition

Blurb for THE BOOK

What makes us social?

All animals are social. Their brains have mechanisms that evolution fashioned over millions of years. They are largely hidden in the manner of built-in instincts. Like other instincts they run on auto-pilot and require little effort. But social life even in flies is not all automatic and instinctual. There is learning and there is social learning. Social learning is essentially learning from others and thus avoiding making your own mistakes. The question is whether human beings have some extra mechanisms that make them even more social than other species. One reason for supposing it is that humans have created culture. Culture provides a mostly visible structure that guides learning in distinct and sophisticated ways. Culture makes learning from others even better than just observing others: you can learn from people who are no longer there, indeed you can read books and visit buildings that go back many generations.

In this book we will consider both the automatic forms of being social in different species and we will try to probe into those forms of being social that are a hallmark of human beings.

Human beings often do not appreciate the automatic forms of being social, precisely because they are automatic and unconscious. Remarkably, humans can reflect on some of these processes in a conscious fashion. And this reflection may lead them to suppress social instincts, for better or worse. It is not at all clear whether it is possible to become conscious of our instinctive social tendencies. For example, we generally do as others do; we like things that others like – even when we think we act completely independently and have a unique taste in the things we like. Actually, we are very particular about distinguishing ourselves from others, but who the others are is another question. There are those in our inner circle, the in-group, and there are the others, the out-group.

Of all the tricks that the brain has equipped human beings with, the ability to understand and influence each other, is perhaps the most remarkable. The trick works unconsciously, but it also works at a conscious level. It allows humans to think that they can explain and predict behaviour. We will show that this is largely an illusion. However, it has given rise to a complex folk psychology. This makes us comfortable in believing that we know why we are doing something and why others do or do not behave in similar ways. Our explanations of the causes of behaviour are not couched in popular laws of physics, but in popular laws of psychology: We do things because we want to do them, because we believe it is the right thing to do, because we suspect that another person is trying to deceive us. We use persuasion to change others’ psychological states.

We are rarely at a loss to explain, after the fact, why somebody did to us what they did. Even if we know we are simply making up stories that make sense of behaviour, we cannot resist them. And we have an insatiable appetite for hearing about such stories in newspapers, in books and films. These examples let us replay and imagine what makes people ‘tick’. They also give us hints about how to gain friends and influence people. In this book we show how scientific psychology and neuroscience has helped us to understand this social appetite, what it does for us and how we try to control it.

We show that many of the automatic mechanisms of the social brain in humans are the same as those in other animals. However, the control of the mechanisms is undoubtedly more accomplished in humans than in most other species. Still, this control sometimes seems to work against us, as witnessed in conflict, in greed and selfishness, as well as in the breakdown of trust. It is also apparent  in our story telling to justify failed interactions with others. We hope that scientific knowledge of how these processes work  will improve control when our dark selfish and noble altruistic nature collide.