Brain Socializing with Monkeys Like Us
“Society is a masked ball, where everyone hides his real character, and reveals it by hiding.” —RALPH WALDO EMERSON, CONDUCT OF LIFE
Monkey See, Monkey Drama
Professor Laurie Santos is one of the leading primatologists in the country. As the director of the Yale University CapLab (aka, the Comparative Cognition Laboratory), she has developed an understanding of capuchin monkey social systems that is challenging many of our long-held assumptions about monkey and human distinctions. At times, she explains, watching the capuchins is just like watching a human soap opera (without the cheesy dialogue). Monkeys display jealousy, grief, worry, joy, and a range of other emotions that we used to think were exclusive to humans. They also cheat on their partners, steal, and alienate others, just like humans do. As it turns out, the dynamics of monkey society are not unlike our own—in some ways, they are startlingly similar.
What is not the same, Santos points out, is how we and our capuchin cousins navigate our way through our respective social landscapes. The reason for this disparity is that natural evolution and cultural evolution move at entirely different speeds. Santos comments: “Culture moves much faster than natural selection; too fast for natural selection to ever catch us up biologically.”
Another way to state that observation is that our social infrastrucure is far more complex than natural selection could prepare us for. When we observe monkeys, we see a species exhibiting emotional undercurrents similar to our own and addressing them with basic skills that fit the need. If an alien race were to observe us, on the other hand, they would see a species wrestling to manage social complexity that is frequently over our heads, threatening to drown us on any given day.
What this means is that our brains are in many ways at odds with our social environments. Happy brains are protective, predictive, and conservative—not the best fit for human societies that place high value on unpredictability, speed, and consumption. Nevertheless, this is where we find ourselves, and our social culture is ours to manage no matter how profound the difficulties—after all, we are the crafters of our societies. So let’s do some digging.
Hi There, I’m Evaluating You
We will begin with a core element of social dynamics: first impressions. We all intuitively know the importance of first impressions; from an early age, the mantra of “you never forget a first impression” is pressed into our psyches—but what’s really going on when we first meet someone that has such a significant impact forevermore? Researchers from New York University and Harvard joined forces to identify what neural systems are in play upon first acquaintance. To accomplish this, the research team designed a novel experiment in which they examined the brain activity when participants developed first impressions of fictional individuals.2
The participants were given written profiles of twenty individuals describing different personality traits. The profiles, presented along with pictures of these fictional people, included scenarios indicating both positive (e.g., intelligent) and negative (e.g., lazy) traits in their depictions. After reading the profiles, the participants were asked to evaluate how much they liked or disliked each person. These impressions varied depending on the value assigned to the different positive and negative traits. For instance, if a participant valued intelligence more than aggressiveness, he or she formed a positive impression of a profile conveying intelligence. During this impression formation period, participants’ brain activity was observed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Based on the participants’ ratings, the researchers were able to determine the difference in brain activity when they encountered information that was most important in forming the first impression. Two areas of the brain showed significant activity during the coding of impression-relevant information: the amygdalae, which previous research has linked to emotional learning about inanimate objects and social evaluations of trust; and the posterior cingulate cortex, which has been linked to economic decision making and valuation of rewards.
Both of these areas of the brain have been linked to how we determine the value of things (or “value processing,” if you prefer). While the line from study results to behavioral inference is never perfectly straight, it appears that this study indicates we’re all hardcore value processors even before “Hello” comes out of our mouths. The subjective evaluation we make when meeting someone new includes—to put it bluntly—what’s in it for us. This interpretation is not nearly as cynical as it may seem. We are wired to evaluate others in large part on a trust basis, and to our brains, trust is linked to rewards. Both earning another’s trust and feeling at ease enough to extend our trust are rewards in the parlance of the happy brain. It makes sense that our brains begin this evaluation from the first moment we make someone’s acquaintance.
Another not-so-obvious aspect of first impressions is that the impression we are trying to give influences how we evaluate others.That’s the finding of a study that included hundreds of participants who watched a short film and then discussed it with another participant.3 Half the participants were given an “impression management goal” to appear introverted, extraverted, smart, confident, or happy. After the discussions, participants rated themselves and the person they had spoken with across several personality traits. Those with an impression management goal rated their conversation partner significantly lower on the trait they were trying to show in themselves, but not on other personality traits. This seems to happen because when we focus on embellishing a particular trait in ourselves, we unconsciously increase the standard for that trait in others—and they usually fall short. So just because someone you’re trying to impress doesn’t seem as outgoing, gregarious, or confident as you are, don’t assume that they truly aren’t. It could be that how you are trying to come across has changed your perspective—your brain wouldn’t have it any other way.
Reasons to Doubt Your THOMAS
According to neuroeconomist Paul Zak, the essential part of running a con is not to convince the pigeon to trust you, but rather to convince him that you trust him. The neurochemical system at play in the con is The Human Oxytocin Mediated Attachment System (THOMAS). THOMAS is a powerful brain circuit that releases the neurochemical oxytocin when we are trusted and induces a desire to reciprocate the trust we have been shown, even with strangers. When THOMAS is engaged by someone who displays trust, we become more vulnerable to the devices of the unscrupulous. The prefrontal cortex, home of our deliberative, and hence more vigilant, faculties, takes a back seat while THOMAS flirts with disaster. The flip side of this coin is that if THOMAS was never engaged, we’d never empathize with anyone or be able to build relationships. Zak’s research suggests that about 2 percent of those we encounter in trust scenarios are—using the clinical term—jerks. These people are deceptive, don’t stay in relationships long, and enjoy taking advantage of others. They are particularly dangerous because they have learned how to simulate trustworthiness, which makes them psychologically similar to sociopaths.4
How We Prune Our Networks
First impressions behind us, let’s move on to the dynamics of the most common of relationships: friendships and acquaintanceships. With the dawn of the social-networking age, these relationships are drifting into murkier waters all the time—not because social networking necessarily makes them any less meaningful, but because virtual interaction makes them harder to pin down. We are going to examine one aspect of this ambiguity—the turnover of relationships over time.
For ages, sociologists have debated whether personal preference or social context holds more sway over how we meet people and the nature of our relationships (would, for example, your husband have become your husband if you’d met him in a bar instead of via your best friend?). Sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst took on the challenge of addressing this question by crafting a study that investigated how the context in which we meet people influences our social network.5 To his surprise, he found that we lose and replace about half of our friends every seven years, and as a result the size of our social network remains the same over time. Mollenhorst conducted a survey of 1,007 people of ages eighteen to sixty-five years. Seven years later, the respondents were contacted once again and 604 people were reinterviewed. They answered questions such as: Who do you talk with regarding important personal issues? Who helps you with projects in your home? Who do you pop by to see? Where did you get to know that person? And where do you meet that person now?
Mollenhorst found that personal network sizes remained stable, but many members of the network were new. Only 30 percent of the original friends and discussion partners had the same position in a subject’s network seven years later, and only 48 percent of all the contacts were still part of the social network. Mollenhorst also found that social networks were not formed based on personal choices alone. Our choice of friends is limited by opportunities to meet, and people often choose friends from a context in which they have previously chosen a friend. If the pond had fish the first time, why not cast back in? Also, in contrast to research that suggests people typically separate things like work, social clubs, and friends, this study shows that these categories often overlap.
A Happy Brain’s Social Preferences
So we see that our social networks are anything but static. Not only should we expect movement in and out of our social circles, but we should also acknowledge the limiting factors that influence them. Another of these factors is the degree to which we feel an affinity with someone not yet in our social circle—the preexisting “inness” or “outness” feeling each of us gets when making a new acquaintance. It comes as no surprise that people tend to prefer others of the same in-group. If, for example, you’re a diehard supporter of a political candidate and someone drives by with a bumper sticker endorsing the candidate, you feel a hint of “inness” with that person. If someone drives by with a bumper sticker of the candidate’s opponent, you feel a twinge of “otherness” about that person. If asked why, you might say that the first person probably shares many of your views and you’re on the same team, more or less. The second driver is showing with the opponent’s bumper sticker that she’s on the other team. In effect, you feel a sense of in-group trust with the first person that you don’t feel with the second.
But why, exactly, trust a stranger any more than another stranger if you don’t really know either of them? That question was addressed in a study conducted by researchers from Australian National University and Hokkaido University in Japan.6 The study began by establishing two possible rationales for group-based trust. The first is stereotyping: People tend to judge in-group members as nicer, more helpful, generous, trustworthy, and fair. The second is expectation: People tend to expect better treatment from in-group members because they are thought to value, and want to further, other in-group members’ interests. Study participants were offered a choice between an unknown sum of money from an in-group member or an out-group member (and were told that the in-group and out-group members controlled the amount of money to allocate as they desired). The initial result was that participants overwhelmingly chose the in-group-member option. And, surprisingly, this result held true even when the stereotype of the in-group was more negative than that of the out-group. Good, bad, or indifferent, the stereotype was ignored in favor of group identity. But when participants were told that the in-group money giver didn’t know they were part of the same group, the situation changed. When this was the case, participants resorted to making their choice on the basis of stereotype. If the ingroup was portrayed negatively, then the participants were more likely to choose the out-group-member option, and vice versa.
This study suggests that when members of the in-group are mutually aware of their “inness,” there’s an expectation of better treatment than would be received from an out-grouper. But when that awareness is muddied, reliance on stereotypes kicks in. What does this finding tell us about our biases when selecting new members of our social circles? First, it tells us that we often use shaky criteria for making judgments about people. We determine that one stranger is more deserving of our trust than another either because we put unjustifiably high value on their likemindedness, or we simply default to a stereotype. Neither of these tendencies speak especially well of themselves, though they evidence basic tendencies that are in all likelihood neurally imprinted. In fact, neuroscience research has identified neural structures in our brains correlating to our social biases—so there is worthy evidence that social bias is, at least to some degree, wired into our noggins.8
The Power of Posing; It’s a Biochemical Thing
Let’s say that you’re about to discuss a difficult issue with your manager that you’re convinced you are right about. You can either go in with a firm, confident physical posture, ready to make your points with a strong voice and imposing hand gestures; or you can go in with your arms folded, your head bowed, and your voice low. The option you choose is more than a matter of interpersonal politics—it will also affect your biochemical reaction. Researchers conducted a study to find out if body gestures like those I just mentioned actually alter levels of testosterone (associated with assertiveness and risk taking) and cortisol (associated with anxiety and fear). In other words, does “power posing” confer a biochemical advantage that increases feelings of power and tolerance of risk? According to this study, it definitely does. High-power posers gained a testosterone boost and cortisol drop; low-power posers experienced the exact opposite effect. But which comes first, the biochemical chicken or the behavioral egg? This study indicates that behavioral choice punches up the biochemical reactions, suggesting that even a typically understated person can get a big boost by doing a little power posing.7
Negotiating Fairness: Indignity versus Integrity
Like the monkeys in Dr. Santos’s lab, humans are endlessly engaged in a tricky game of give and take. Dr. Santos coined the termmonkeynomics to describe this interplay among the capuchins. When a monkey feels wronged in a negotiation, he or she will refuse to participate any longer, or at least until the wrong has been rectified (which usually means that the other monkey hands over the grapes). Humans face similar circumstances all the time, albeit with additional layers of complexity that make knowing when to draw the proverbial line all the more challenging.
Let’s say, for example, that you are negotiating with someone about how to split a sum of money that you both can rightly claim, but that the other person, regrettably for you, has in his possession. You have one opportunity to make the deal, and the other person is not obligated to keep negotiating with you after this. Since he has the upper hand, the person you’re negotiating with says that he thinks a 70-30 split is fair, with 70 percent going to him. If you accept his terms, you get 30 percent of the money. If you reject his terms, you get 0 percent. You believe the terms to be unfair, but if it’s the difference between 30 percent and nothing, you’ll take the 30 percent, right?
Maybe not. Instead, you might reject the offer as a symbolic way of expressing your anger and take the opportunity to tell the unfair dealer exactly what you think of him, money be damned.
OK. But now imagine that you are negotiating with someone who has been informed that she can unilaterally decide how much of the money to give you and you have no say in the outcome. In other words, as far as she’s concerned, she can dictate the amount and she doesn’t care what you decide—in fact, she’ll never even know. On your side ofthe deal, however, all you know is that you are going to be offered a sum of money just as you were in the first deal, and you can choose to reject or accept it. You cannot, however, discuss the deal with the other person and voice whether you believe the deal to be fair or unfair—you have no recourse.
So once again you are offered 30 percent ofthe money, and this time not only are you faced with 30 percent or nothing, but you’re also denied the satisfaction of telling the unfair dealer off or even symbolically protesting. This time it seems clear—you take the money, right?
Once again, quite possibly not. But why not? You have no chance of trying to make the deal fairer, and no opportunity to express your disgust, so what’s making you still turn down the money? That’s precisely what a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences investigated.9 Participants were made to play both of the game scenarios above; the first is called the Impunity Game, a variation of the Ultimatum Game. In the Ultimatum Game, a proposer is given a sum of money and told to negotiate with a responder on how to split the amount. The responder has two options: (1) accept the amount proposed and both parties get the agreed upon amount of money, or (2) reject the amount proposed, and neither party gets any money. The typical result of this game is that most unfair offers are rejected and the parties commonly agree to a 50-50 split.
In the Impunity Game, the responder can still reject the offer, but by doing so also loses any claim to the money. It’s a “take X percent or nothing” deal. The typical results of this game are that between 30 and 40 percent of responders reject the offer in a show of symbolic punishment against the unfair party. The responder forfeits the cash, but still says her piece.
The final variation is called the Private Impunity Game (the second imaginary scenario I gave you) in which the proposer is told that he can simply dictate the amount to be given to the responder. The responder, however, is told that she can still reject the offer but the proposer will never know what decision she made. In this case, the predicted result is that nearly all participants will act rationally and take the money, since they have no chance of recourse and no chance to make the proposer aware of their disgust.
That’s the prediction, but surprisingly it turns out not to be true. The rejection rate of unfair offers is still a hefty 30-40 percent. The reason suggested by this study is, in a word, emotion. When faced with an unfair offer, we have the choice of rationally accepting the immediate incentive and ending the dispute or allowing an emotional response to dominate. We respond emotionally to unfair treatment for the same reason that a bear charges someone intruding on its territory. Because we know that a bear will act aggressively if it feels challenged, we avoid bears. The same dynamic applies to us: If someone is known to emotionally respond with anger and moral outrage to unfair treatment, he develops a reputation as someone to avoid crossing.
What this study also tells us is that not only are we concerned with consistency in our external reputations, but we’re just as much, if not more, concerned with internal consistency. Our emotional response guards against accepting immediate incentives that compromise our integrity. Over time, this internal consistency that preserves integrity may also spruce up our external reputation. Simply put: Most of us would rather be seen as bears than sheep.
But here’s the question: If it is really in our best interest to take less when the alternative is nothing, and stubbornly we still don’t, have we really made the best decision? The tricky part is knowing what constitutes the “best” decision, and if perhaps taking a short-term hit to one’s dignity is better for one’s long-term interests. Unfortunately for us, our brains are not terribly efficient at making these judgments in short order. Time is always a factor. If the defensive emotional response is strong enough, it’s likely no amount of calculating is going to thwart it, especially when things are happening fast (and they usually are).
Again, there is nothing black and white about the tendencies of a happy brain. Opinions on the scenario I just described will vary widely. But the main point remains the same: How our brains react in a given situation may very well undermine our best interests in the short and/or long term.
Now we will shift to another social dynamic that sits at the hub of every relationship (and not only those with other people): the power of influence.