Brain Psychology and The Social Brain

By Mark Graybill

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

I’ll never forget early in 2004 when the bubble of a major epiphany burst.

After having experienced and studied the social nature of people across a dozen organizations, I noticed common social patterns behind organizational issues. One such pattern was the most obvious: people were afraid to speak up when it was critical to do so.

This was prevalent at the medical device company I was consulting for at the time. As I was describing these patterns to a friend, he said one of them sounded a lot like Crucial Conversations (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, & Switzler).

I read the book and found the authors explored one of the same patterns I did. However, the social patterns of human nature Patterson et al., didn’t address still awaited exploration.

Tip of the Iceberg

I realized the Crucial Conversations pattern was just the tip of the iceberg. The tools the book offered failed to account for the iceberg underneath.

A glimpse of such does exist, however, in Dan Goleman’s books on Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence.

Most knowledge of what lies beneath the surface still remains confined to the research literature awaiting translation.

If books like Crucial Conversations can be written about a mere speck on the tip of the social nature iceberg, you can imagine the literary volume it would take to describe the whole iceberg. Voluminous findings exist, spanning numerous disciplines over more than a century.

Brain Psychology and the Iceburg

These findings paint a very different picture of human and social nature than most of us are accustomed to.

Why should I care, you may ask? Aside from leadership styles, philosophies, tools, and techniques, principle #1 in leadership is engaging the journey toward self-mastery.

The leadership one practices may hit the ceiling without self-mastery if it merely consists of tricks and techniques. The most daunting journey toward self-mastery is where the terrain is our social world, and the vehicle is learning of ourselves. There is a reason why such a journey is daunting.

The emotionally-invoked social dysfunction outlined in books and an article here (Hallowell) is actually the last resort of the brain’s hardwired goal to maintain homeostasis. Survival is merely urgently attending to the status quo. The more common homeostatic drive is the conservation of mental energy.

This means that consciously engaging in social situations can feel hard, as it will require neural changes that burn more energy, generate more heat and produce more waste than our already habituated social self. Thus, our first tendency is to avoid such change. This may be why many leaders struggle and why change is difficult to navigate.

Brain Psychology and Emotions

Emotions and Reason

As explained in previous works (Goleman, Hallowell, Patterson), when our ancestors faced a carnivorous predator, the primitive part of the brain that handles fight or flight would activate while higher brain functions shut down.

Today, that higher function is needed to avoid fight or flight and effectively carry on crucial conversations. The underlying implication is that our brains evolved to adapt to a different world than we have today. The everyday moment-by-moment aspect of that world was the social world of the hunter-gatherer. Keep this concept in mind as you read on.

Emotions such as those exhibited during crucial conversations are merely the most observable. Such emotions are toward the extreme of what is termed in psychology as effect. The effect is the meaning we associate with events, situations, objects, and people and the impact that meaning has on us.

For instance, you are attending a meeting with John, who seems to have little interest in anything you have to say. The fact it seems this way comes from effect. The effect associated with John and meetings will make you less likely to speak in meetings when John is present.

Effect refers to not only significant emotions we can see in facial expressions, language, and behavior but also everything down a scale to the most subtle we are not consciously aware of.

This is important because we now know that reason is intricately tied to affect, yet the reason is still separate from affect (emotion). The conventional view the two are mutually exclusive and distinct no longer holds.

The same adaptive goals and, thus, brain structures at play in crucial conversations (or facing a saber tooth tiger) are also at play in every other social situation. Also, because such processes occur beneath our awareness, if we do become aware, we are usually only aware of the products of such thought processes.

Such products can include, for instance, who we like or dislike, what information we attend to or ignore, the evaluations we attribute to others and ourselves, and the social statuses or subtle social roles we assimilate or reject – and of course, detection of threat.

Areas of the Brain

The Rest of the Story: The Social Brain

We understand that because our brain physiology evolved for a dangerous environment incompatible with today’s social settings, emotions can get in the way of such situations as crucial conversations.

We also know that such emotions are merely the extreme we experience in difficult but otherwise rare social settings – and that most emotions (affect) we experience are far more subtle. Finally, all effect originates and processes beneath our awareness.

Thus, since all affect originates in the same brain physiology, and all thinking – AKA reason – involves affect, all our thoughts, perceptions, and evaluations of others may be vulnerable to the same incompatibility we can experience with crucial conversations. This is characteristic of what has come to be known as our social brain (Johnson, Grossman, & Kadosh, 2009).

A more suited term to poignantly grasp the functional view of human social nature is social instinct. However, it is important to understand that instinct does not mean predetermined behavior. Rather, it means a goal-oriented tendency where the goals originated in a past and obsolete era.

A social instinct is comprised of several major functions: social perception (including social comparison and evaluation), social influence, and social cognition. Some of the observable phenomena in social instinct include stereotype threat, self-fulfilling prophesy (Kierein & Gold, 2000), and implicit personality theory (Baron, Byrne, & Branscombe, 2006). The rest of the iceberg involves more subtle and fundamental adaptive goals such as social role and status, dominance, and avoidance (Locke, 2003; Wilson, 2000).

Four important things to know about social instinct are:

  • It is merely a goal-oriented default tendency
  • Specific tendencies can vary significantly across a population
  • We can learn to improve our social ability
  • We can override the default
Speaking Up

Why Don’t We Speak Up?

Although this is merely an introduction to the proverbial social iceberg, the following takeaway should be helpful to everyone: (a) our social perceptions of ourselves and others can betray us, and (b) we can learn to detect such patterns and overcome such betrayal.

The limbic system impulses mentioned in Crucial Conversations and Dr. Hallowell’s article stem from goal-oriented social tendencies and the responses we learned for such situations. However, such is merely the extreme of our social nature.

For more subtle and more common social situations, our limbic brain doesn’t understand the sociopolitical reasons why we don’t speak up when we know we should.  We just “feel” that way.

The feeling of reticence and its rationale originate from different brain structures (Norden, 2009; Pinel, 2009). This means we can experience a response that doesn’t match the reality of the situation.  Consequently, our emotions (affect) and, thus, our conclusions can deceive us.

If we are not aware of such self-deception, we may spin incorrect justifications for these emotions rather than questioning the emotions. When the situation involves other people, this manifests in our tendency to blame others for the emotions we experience more than is warranted.

Again, this processing occurs beneath our awareness – it is not a conscious, wrongful accusation. It fulfills a major goal of social instinct: to provide structure and explanation for the social world around us under the auspices of homeostasis and energy conservation.

What Can We Do About It?

Our most crowning evolutionary achievement is our executive brain – located in the frontal lobe. It can be trained not only to calm the limbic system and regulate emotions, but with practice, we can habituate this control.  At the macro level, we can use the tools offered by Patterson et al. and follow Dr. Hallowell’s advice. I’ll refer you to those works for details.

On the micro-scale, we can practice detecting and questioning our social perceptions and the social evaluations we make of others and ourselves, and overall avoid the practice of blindly believing as true our views of others.  Such is especially needed when we experience an emotional response.

For instance, when you feel uncomfortable around someone, question yourself why. Ask what proof you have to feel uncomfortable.  Have you already attributed to them some derogatory evaluation? Do you really have enough evidence to warrant your derogatory feelings about them?

I have witnessed how a person’s mere facial features and animated behavior can turn people off to such an extent they will avoid them.  Isn’t it a better option to question our discomfort instead?

How you regard others will cause them to behave consistently with your beliefs about them or have them turn on you. Playing devil’s advocate in your mind on their behalf will go a long way in weeding bias out of your leadership garden. It will also contribute fuel to your journey to self-mastery. But be aware that doing so may seem hard because it may cause uncomfortable neural changes.

On the bright side, if it seems hard, you’re probably doing something right.

How Does Brain Psychology Relate to Leadership Skills?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Mark Graybill
Mark Graybill
Mark has a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a management consultant, a leadership instructor for the Air Force Reserves, and a Ph.D. student of Psychology specializing in Social Cognition and Instruction.
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