Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect by Matthew D. Lieberman


Humans are deeply wired to be social and to stay connected with friends and family. 

Our brain evolved to be social through three major adaptations: connection, mindreading, and harmonizing. This book summary will provide a brief overview of each, as well as some of the author's thoughts and questions on how to enhance our daily lives and social connections.

Social sets out to get clear about who we are as social creatures and reveal how a more accurate understanding of our social nature can improve our lives and our society.


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There are multiple systems and networks within our brain and each emerged at a different point in our evolutionary history.

As we use our brain for different tasks, different areas of our brain are active. Sometimes we're using a math and science part of our brain, other times we might be using a more creative or artistic part of our brain.

One of the largest recent discoveries in neuroscience is what the brain does when it's not working on any other task.

This part of the brain is called the Default Mode or the Default Network. It is active only when the brain isn't working on any other task. The Default Mode supports social cognition--making sense of other people and ourselves.

When we start a task or conversation different areas of our brains will activate to help us. As soon as the task is over our brain returns to the Default Mode so it can continue thinking socially. This is the brain's preferred state of being, the state the brain returns to literally the second it has a chance.

When asked about top fears, many people will put public speaking near the top of the list. 

When people say they are afraid of public speaking what they are really saying is that they are afraid others will think they are foolish or incompetent. They're afraid of rejection and public speaking maximizes the number of people who may reject them at one time.

We intuitively believe that social and physical pain are two separate and radically different experiences. Yet new neuroscience research shows our brain treats them very similarly.

When human beings experience threats or damage to their social bonds, the brain responds in much the same way it responds to physical pain.
— Matthew D. Lieberman

Since our brain treats physical and mental pain similarly, a fear of public speaking is analogous to a fear of heights. They are both our body's way of saying: "if something goes wrong, we will be in pain." Our sensitivity to social rejection is so central to our well-being that our brains treat it like a painful event.

Of course physical and emotional pain are not identical. Different kinds of pain have different characteristics, but social pain is just as real as physical pain.

We don’t expect someone with a broken leg to “just get over it.” And yet when it comes to the pain of social loss, this is a common response.

Studies have shown that taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) causes people to actually feel less social pain. Tylenol can make the brain's pain network less sensitive to the pain of rejection. The same painkiller that we use to make a headache go away can also help feelings of heartache go away.


If you and I were walking and I found $10 on the ground and offered to split it. If I offered that I would keep $9 and would give you $1, many people would reject this offer for being so unfair. Even though you're still getting free money.

Although it contrasts rational self interest, studies show that individuals tend to reject highly unfair offers, preferring to get nothing at all rather than to let this insult go unpunished.


Both financial and social rewards activate the same part of the reward system in the brain. We often talk of the power of money but studies show that being praised or being shown we are loved can be just as potent. 

We really do enjoy giving more than receiving. People are happy to accept $5 for free. But people are even happier to then give up $2 so a charity can have $5. 

People around the world are willing to get a little less so that a stranger can get a little more.

There are two kinds of social rewards:

  • The kind we receive when others let us know they like, respect, or care for us, and
  • The kind we receive when we care for or treat others well.
Although adults can survive with unmet social needs far longer than with unmet physical needs, our social bonds are linked to how long we live. Having a poor social network is literally as bad for your health as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.


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If I tell you a story with characters in it, you're putting yourself in the shoes of the characters in my story, even if you don't realize you're doing it. You could likely tell me how a typical person would react or how they would be feeling in a certain situation.

Mindreading is the ability to understand or predict the minds of others. The ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes.

We are all mindreaders. As you read this, you comprehend not just the marks on the page but thoughts that I had when I was writing them. Similarly, in writing these words, I have to be able to predict how these marks on the page will be experienced in your mind in order to make my thoughts more easily understood.

Mindreading is something so basic to who we are that we rarely notice it. When we see or interact with other people we want to know what they are thinking and how they are feeling. We also want to be able to anticipate other people's reactions.

If you can predict that the e-mail you are about to send to someone will lead that person to reject you, you can edit the e-mail to get your point across more tactfully. We do this countless times, in large and small ways, each day.

Our ability to imagine these reactions in advance allows us to increase our social rewards and minimize social pain.

We use our capacity for mind-reading to support our motivation for connection. Similarly, we recall past experiences to make predictions of the future. We have seen people feel disappointed by a bad grade on an exam. From these experiences, we can predict how someone in the future may react to a bad grade on an exam.


Our social mindset, our ability to place ourselves in someone else's mind greatly improves each of our interactions with other people. Using this mentalizing network, when we think about the internal states of other people, we can peer inside the minds of those around us. We can take into account their hopes, fears, goals, and intentions. As a result of this we are able to interact with them much more effectively.

If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse.’
— Henry Ford

Mentalizing allows us to imagine not only what other people are thinking or feeling right now but also how they would react to nearly any event in the future. It even allows us to consider how their reactions would change as their development, interests, or circumstances change. The essence of successful inventing, Ford would say, is to figure out what people will want before it exists.

Mirror Neurons

We have a second neural system for making sense of other people. A network of neurons called mirror neurons. If I am watching you open and close your fist, I will have neurons that are registering the opening and closing of a hand, even though I am not the one performing the action. Similarly, if I see you smile or yawn, for example, my neurons will see you and mimic their behavior causing me to smile or yawn. 

Prior to discovering this, neuroscientists had thought of the brain as being divided into different sections for perceiving, thinking, and acting. But with mirror neurons, perception and action were occurring in the same exact neuron.

Understanding Why

Mirror neurons operate automatically regardless of whether or not we are trying to understand another person.

Mirror neurons help us understand low-level intentions. If I see you flick on a light switch, my mind will also activate my light-flicking mirror neurons. But without any context, these mirror neurons can not explain why a person wants the light on. It can not do high-level mind reading.

Developing Empathy

Empathy is our ability to connect with another person’s experience. 

Empathy is arguably the pinnacle of our social cognitive achievements—the peak of the social brain. It requires us to understand the inner emotional worlds of other people and then act in ways that benefit other people and our relationships with them.

Your mirror system may help you intuitively understand what that person is feeling, but without knowing why the person is feeling that way, it is difficult to empathize and share in the joy.

Recent psychology demonstrated that it may literally be painful to watch a loved one feel pain. And not just metaphorically painful, but painful in a way similar to feeling one’s own physical pain.

Empathy represents the perfect storm of sympathetic sharing of another’s feelings, understanding what is likely being experienced and what kind of help or comfort is needed, and having the prosocial motivation to act on behalf of others without necessarily weighing the costs and benefits to oneself.

Using our mindreading abilities lets us proactively plan for how to get along well with others rather than always being a step behind, reactive and defensive.


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Humans are built to be influenced by those around us. We are far more suggestible than we tend to think. This alignment of individuals to the group is called harmonizing and it is essential for successful group living. 

When trying to make sense of who we are as individuals there are two ways to think about it, direct and reflected appraisals. Here are examples of each:

  • Direct appraisals: What you think of yourself. Example: I think I am very smart.
  • Reflected appraisals: What you think others think of you. Example: My friends think I am very smart.

When people are asked for reflected appraisals they use the mindreading part of their brain (as discussed in the last section). Tellingly, when asked for direct appraisals they also used the mindreading part of their brain. 

This reinforces the idea of self-knowledge constructed from outside sources.

Each of us is a blend of the distinctive and the common, the unique and the shared. But we often think of ourselves in a pitched battle between being true to our self, which is all about standing apart from the crowd, and our need to fit in, which causes us to conform against our wills.

Our sense of self, our heart and intuition, is actually part of what ensures that most of us will conform to group norms, promoting social harmony.

Self Control

Delaying gratification, the ability to put off a present desire to have a more desirable reward in the future, is a difficult but valuable tool. 

People with higher levels of self-control have higher incomes, higher credit scores, better health, and better social skills from childhood to adulthood, and they report being happier with life.

One of the defining characteristics of self-control is that it seems to be a limited resource. Essentially, we can engage in only one kind of self-control at a time.

Self-control is like a muscle that can become fatigued and will need time to recover. Lifting weights depletes our muscles in the short run but makes them stronger in the long run. The same may be true of our “self-control muscle.”

Self control serves to ensure social harmonizing. It makes us more likeable and agreeable to others in the groups we spend our time with. It makes us strive to support the group, sometimes at the expense of our private unsocialized impulses, and this effort makes us more valuable to the group.

Rather than pushing our own personal destiny forward, self-control often serves as an instrument of social control ensuring that we follow social norms and values.

Smarter, Happier, More Productive

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Everything we do in life and all the organizations that we are a part of are affected by our understanding of “who we are.”

We all want a good life— to be happy and healthy. Society at large has a huge investment in people being happy and healthy as well; happy and healthy people are more productive, get into less trouble, and cost society less money.

The big question is what makes for a happy and healthy life? 

In 1989, more than 200,000 college freshmen were asked about their life goals, and one goal stood out from the rest: to be well-off financially.

There’s no question that making more money is valued worldwide and that it provides access to countless resources. But does it make us happy?

Money has much less to do with happiness than we think it does. Income explains only about 2 percent of a person's happiness.

Hedonic Adaptation:

Humans are good at adapting to new circumstances, whether good or bad. It helps protect us from staying depressed forever over negative events. Unfortunately, it also keeps us from staying elated after positive events.

Most people don't care much about the actual amount of money they earn, and care much more about how much they are making relative to those around us.

Earning $50,000 a year in a neighborhood where most people earn $30,000 a year could make us happier than earning $100,000 a year and having neighbors who earn $200,000 a year.

Being Social Makes Us Happy:

One study compared the impact of income and social connections on well-being and found that social factors had a more positive impact on well-being than income.

Recent Studies and Results:

  • Volunteering is associated with greater well-being. People who volunteer at least once a week increase their well-being the same amount as moving from a $20,000-a-year salary to a $75,000-a-year salary.
  • Across more than 100 countries, giving to charity is related to changes in well-being equivalent to the doubling of one’s salary.
  • Having a friend whom you see on most days, compared to not having such a friend, had the same impact on well-being as making an extra $100,000 a year.
    • Being married is worth an extra $100,000, while being divorced is on par with having your salary slashed by $90,000.
    • Just seeing your neighbor regularly is like making an extra $60,000.
    • By far, the most valuable non-monetary asset researchers examined was physical health, with “good” health compared to “not good” health. Equivalent to about a $400,000 salary bonus.
That might seem crazy, but if you were not in good health, how much money would you be willing to give up to be in good health again?


In a survey given in 1985, people were asked to list their friends in response to the question “Over the last six months, who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?”

The most common number of friends listed was three. 59% of respondents listed three or more friends fitting this description.

The same survey was given again in 2004. This time the most common number of friends listed was zero. And only 37 percent of respondents listed three or more friends.

Back in 1985, only 10 percent indicated that they had zero confidants. In 2004, this number skyrocketed to 25 percent. One out of every four of us is walking around with no one to share our lives with. Being social makes our lives better. Yet every indication is that we are getting less social, not more.

Changing Times:

In 1965, only 45 percent of college freshmen listed being “very well-off financially” as a top life goal. At that point, “helping others” and “raising a family” scored higher. But by 1989, being well-off was at the top of the list, with 75 percent endorsing it.

This is troubling news because the more individuals endorse materialism as a positive life value, the less happy they are with their lives.

Increasing Our Social Connections:

Increasing the social connections in our lives is probably the single easiest way to enhance our well-being. But a growing addiction to materialistic values is taking us in the wrong direction, causing us to sacrifice time and energy from our social lives to the pursuit of financial success.

Studies show that when people think about money, they become motivated to work more and socialize less. However, when people are prompted to think about time, the reverse happens, people become motivated to work less and socialize more.

Creating Better Work Environments:

Creating the right social environment at work should be a top priority for anyone who wants the best out of themselves and those around them.

Money Still Motivates:

If you run a company or department and want employees to show up on time, work harder, and stay with your company longer, there is a tried-and-true solution: pay people more money.

As we've discussed, making more money doesn’t actually make people much happier but people think money will make the happier so they are motivated to work for it.

Human Capital:

Human capital is the amount of intelligence, experience, and education a person has. Not surprisingly, companies with more human capital tend to do better.
  • In large sales companies, top sales people were willing to trade 20% of their salary for the privilege of being recognized as a high-status salesperson.
  • Fairness might seem like a squishy motivator, but recall that fairness activates the same reward circuitry in the brain as winning money.
  • Two-thirds of people would prefer a better boss to a higher salary.

Do Work That Matters:

Ever since Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, people have suggested that we are more motivated to do things that are personally meaningful to us.

For most people in most lines of work, doing something meaningful means helping others. It’s hard to find meaning in what we do if at some level it doesn’t help someone else or make someone happier.

Mother Teresa, who observed people in the most squalid living conditions imaginable, believed that a life without other people “is the worst disease that any human being can ever experience.”

Where To Buy

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Buy the book on AmazonBarnes and NobleBAM, or just Google it. (I receive no kickback or commission for these links or summaries. See my disclosure for more.)

Even More Great Stuff in The Book:

  • Our biological hardwiring for connection
  • Anatomy of the brain and the roles of different parts of your brain

  • Our perception of fairness and its importance

  • How organizations can utilize different non-material rewards for employees

  • Counterarguments the gaps in our knowledge of mirror neurons

  • The hot-spot of brain activity that will be a focus of research in 10 years

  • An explanation of Autism and how it relates to our social mind

  • The "Intense-World hypothesis" of Autism

  • How we can create better schools and work environments

  • Ideas for creating more socially connected communities and schools

Erik Cianci