Relationships


Stuff I couldn’t stuff into the book,
but that I think is pretty interesting…

(mostly on the brain science around Relationships)

If you are reading this, you are by definition quite a social being. As humans, we all are. While animal brains care deeply about Life and Stability and the Growth of their gene pool, animals don’t think about other animals the way that we think about other humans. We truly became human when we became social beings.

Darwin said that we humans became dominant because we are best able to adapt. In East Africa where several varieties of our early ancestors lived, the climate would change pretty drastically every two thousand years or so. One adaptation that helped deal with this changing environment was when the strain of humanoids that eventually became humans developed bigger brains. This allowed for more and better data analysis and the ability to learn to cope with changing environments.

What we do

But a whole part of our big brains—the part that no other animal has, the prefrontal lobe—is devoted mostly to understanding the people around us. To survive in these changing environments, we had to learn how to get along with each other. So our brains have become really good at figuring out other humans and being able to live sociably together. Social psychologist Alan Fiske (Structure of Social Life: The Four Elementary Forms of Human Relations, 1991) believes there are four skill sets that we need to form human relationship bonds: 1) we need to share things with others, 2) we need to recognize and be willing to defer to higher status individuals, 3) we need to expect that favors will be repaid, and, 4) we need to trade products and services at fair market prices.

Let me explore the first three of these here. The last one, trade and fair market prices, is more related to the Good of Equality. It is a Good that is strongly related to Relationships, but an important linchpin between Relationships and Individuality and therefore, in this model, a Good separate from Relationships itself—related, but still independent.

Sharing

In any social grouping, we at least have to share physical space with each other and usually we share a lot more than that. We learn to rely on other people when we are babies and young children and, except for the most socially impaired, all of us share things with each other to some extent—it is the definition of being human … or a bonobo.

Until a recent study by Brian Hare of Duke University and Suzy Kwetuenda from the Lola ya Bonobo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Current Biology, March 9 2010), it was thought that only humans would voluntarily share precious food. In their study, a hungry bonobo was given food and a key. The key opened the cage that contained another hungry bonobo. The one given the food could easily eat all the food and never open the cage, but the bonobos preferred to open the cage and share with the other hungry individual.

I wrote, not more than a page ago, that our brains are different from all other animals, including bonobos; and that is still true. But in a 2012 study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (J. Rilling, et al. “Differences between chimpanzees and bonobos in neural systems supporting social cognition,” vol 7, number 4, pp 369-379), bonobo and chimp (our two closest genetic relatives) brains were found to be significantly different from each other. Bonobos, it turns out, have more grey matter in areas of the brain specific to coping with social relationships.

So bonobos are not human brains, but they function more like us than any other animal on the planet. And while both hungry humans and bonobos can be quite protective of scarce food supplies normally, we humans are even more conscious than bonobos of the social need to share with another who is in equal need.

There are advantages to all this sharing. When there is a crisis, we are also more likely work together to get through the crisis “as one.” University of Sussex psychologist, John Drury, interviewed 21 survivors of mass emergencies and found that most of them felt that the group had acted in concert rather than “every man for himself.” This willingness to share the burden of a crisis or the windfall of newfound food with a stranger is built into us. (http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2009/08/emergencies-inspire-crowd-cooperation.html?)


Hierarchy

Just as we need to learn to relegate some of our naturally selfish tendencies to feed or save ourselves first. We also have to submit to the social structure of whatever group we join. We find hierarchies everywhere we go. As Samuel Johnson said, “No two people can be half an hour together, but one shall acquire an evident superiority over the other.” There will always be a pecking order.

Furthermore, our brain automatically deals with this order. In a study by Caroline Zink and her colleagues, it was found that certain brain regions are more active when we are dealing with a superior than when dealing with a subordinate. (“Know Your Place: Neural Processing of Social Hierarchy in Humans” Neuron, April 24, 2008)

There is good reason for this hierarchy; we humans have very long childhoods in which we are either incapable or only partially capable of taking care of ourselves independently. We need to learn all the tricks of being people. And these long childhoods have also allowed us to pass on tremendous amounts of information from generation to generation—ensuring that there isn’t much loss of knowledge and skills from parent to child.

This is all good.

However, this hierarchical structure of human life also brings with it deceit, cruelty, and corruption. Consequently, these dysfunctions of our social world call for a clear need to communicate the prioritization of Goods to make societies—particularly modern societies—work in greater harmony.


Hiding from authority

In a series of experiments conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Michael Tomasello and his colleagues have been studying the theory of mind—this is the ability to be conscious of what we are thinking. Theory of mind says that most animals don’t know they are thinking or that any other individual is thinking. Sure there is behavior, but they don’t think about thinking. Nevertheless, in higher primates, we begin to understand that others are of a “different mind”—their ideas, beliefs and intentions are quite different from our own. As social beings, we’ve learned to compensate for those differences in thinking.

One of Tomasello’s experiments found that chimpanzees know what other chimps can and cannot see and then decide to act—or not—based on that knowledge. If they place food and a subordinate chimp on one side of a window, and a dominant chimp on the other side of the window, the subordinate chimp will not go after the food as long as the superior chimp can see them. Many of them develop strategies for “gaming” the system—they wait or hide until the superior chimp is no longer able to see through the window.

Not surprisingly, if the chimp on the other side of the window is of a similar status or lower status, the food is taken with abandon. (A. Leslie. “Pretense and representation: the origins of “theory of mind.” Psychological Review, vol. 94, 1987)

What would Sally and Anne do?

Moving up the evolutionary chain to humans, Wimmer and Perner conducted a classic study in 1983, (“Beliefs about beliefs: Representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in young children's understanding of deceptionCognition, vol. 13) in which children were shown a skit where Sally put a marble in one of two boxes then left the room. While Sally was out of the room, Anne moved the marble into the other box. The children watching the skit were then asked where Sally would look for the marble when she returns to the room.

An ape or a child under the age of three viewing this skit will always believe that Sally will look in the box where the marble actually is. Somewhere between the ages of three and five, children start to understand that what is in Sally’s mind is actually a false belief. Apes never make this “second order” leap about what could be going on in another individual’s mind. Children with autism never make the leap either but, interestingly, children with Down’s Syndrome perform as well as normal children on this test. (Baron-Cohen et. al. “Does the autistic child have a ‘theory of mind’?” Cognition, vol. 21, 1985)

From a hierarchy perspective, about the time we start to become somewhat physically independent, we humans also develop the ability to know that others may have false beliefs. Because our brains develop the way they do, we can—and often do—hide our difference of perceptions from those who are more powerful. Often those who are most successful socially are those who are best able to appear to go along with the beliefs of people above them in the hierarchy even though they really do doubt those beliefs.

Of course the classic hierarchy study was the one conducted by Stanley Milgram, a Harvard trained psychologist, after World War II to try to understand how subordinate Nazi officers could have inflicted so much pain on other people. Time and time again, in this classic experiment, test subjects willingly subordinated their own will to that of the authority figure in the experiment and administered very painful to almost lethal electrical shocks to others. We just don’t like to disagree with people above us in the hierarchy very often or very much.

Power corrupts

Once we get into a position of power and authority, the predilection for corruption and hypocrisy is surprisingly high. Joris Lammers and Diederik Stapel at Tilburg University, in the Netherlands, and Adam Galinsky at Northwestern University (Psychological Science, 2010) conducted a set of experiments where students who were “primed” to think of themselves as powerful or weak then went through a number of exercises. The participants in the study were asked to roll dice and self-report the results. Those with the highest rolls would be given a prize. Given that the scores for the dice rolls could go from zero to 100, the average number on the rolls should be 50. But everyone in the study overreported his or her scores. The low-power respondents reported an average of 59—clearly inflating their results a bit; more interestingly, the participants who were primed to think of themselves as more powerful significantly fudged their results, reporting that they scored an average of 70 points in their rolls.

Then, the powerful and non-powerful in this same study were asked to rate the morality of breaking the speed limit if one is late to a meeting. Interestingly the low-power group saw the morality of others speeding the same as if they themselves were speeding—about 7.2 on a 9-point “rightness” scale. Meanwhile the powerful gave others speeding an average of 6.3 points. To the powerful, it was much more morally wrong for other people to speed. But the powerful gave themselves an average of 7.9 on the “rightness” scale—indicating a high level of hypocrisy. For those primed to see themselves as higher in the social hierarchy, it was much more wrong for others to speed and much more right when they themselves did it.

Hierarchy is a fact of society. We all learn to put up with it to some degree and some of us even learn to thrive in it. But the differences in world views between those with and without power means that we need to find a way to communicate and decide important societal issues that isn’t tainted by domination and deference.

Reciprocity

In any society, there is “tit for tat.” It is not necessary that everyone be equal—in fact, as we discussed in the section on hierarchy, it will never happen. Some will get more than others. But there is a notion in all functional societies that a set of rules are in place that everyone can be trusted to follow for the most part. It may be unequal, but some form of reciprocity remains one of the key social rules for humans: I will give you protection; you will give me loyalty. I will keep your secret; you will be nice to me. Furthermore, for these unequal equations to work, there has to be a lot of trust.

Prince of peptides

If we didn’t have a couple of particular protein-like molecules floating around in our brain, we might not choose to be social at all. Of the roughly 100 peptides that are released by various neurons in the brains of mammals, there are two, oxytocin and vasopressin, without which we might never bond with another human being—there are about two percent of humans who don’t respond normally to these peptides and they have difficulties feeling any warm feelings toward those closest to them in their lives. Oxytocin was the first polypeptide hormone to be sequenced in 1953 and is well known for its role in childbirth, breastfeeding, orgasm and bonding. The levels of this peptide remain high for months in the parents of newborns.

For our purposes here, in understanding reciprocity, recent studies on these peptides show that trust increases with the release of more oxytocin. In a relatively simple experiment described by Paul Zak in a 2008 Scientific American article (“The Neurobiology of Trust”) oxytocin nasal spray was administered to half of the subjects playing a classic economics game. In the game, players share more economic reward the more they cooperate with each other, but it is surprising how rarely they cooperate and how often one or the other player in the game gets a bit greedy. Those who had received the oxytocin dose however, were far more generous than those receiving a placebo spray.

The obvious lesson: the next time you are in a business negotiation give the gift of a little oxytocin spray to those sitting across the table from you and you’ll be richly rewarded for your efforts!

Amusingly, a number of studies on oxytocin—and related polypeptides—have been carried out on prairie voles. These are small three to seven inch long rodents. They look like ground squirrels or mice, but the prairie vole is most interesting to humans for one reason: it is one of the few animals known to form monogamous relationships. The male vole is usually faithful to the female and assists in the raising of their young. However, its cousin, the meadow vole, is not normally monogamous at all–that is, unless scientists introduce a single gene into its brain as a virus. Then, and only then, the meadow vole becomes monogamous. (We have all wanted to give this virus to someone at some point in our lives!) In either the prairie vole or the genetically engineered meadow vole, introducing more or withdrawing some oxytocin can have a strong influence on the social and pair bonding behaviors.

Remembering mom

The same can be found with humans. Studies show that when people do nice things for us or pay attention to us, our brains release oxytocin and that results in the friendly feelings we have for those people. The connection between memories of certain people and these warm feelings stay with us for the rest of our lives. A Time magazine article in November 2010 reports on the studies of Jennifer Bartz at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. In Professor Bartz’ study the role of oxytocin in memory is confirmed but, interestingly, oxytocin only enhances the original memories that were stored. If subjects who had good relationships were given oxytocin when remembering their mothers, the warmth of the connection was enhanced. But subjects who felt anxious about their relationships with their mothers in the first place, a dose of oxytocin actually made them report even less loving feelings. (Maia Szalavitz, “’Love Hormone’ Oxytocin Enhances Men’s Memories of Mom—Good or Bad” Time.com, November 29, 2010)

Obviously if we couldn’t expect a bond to be reciprocated, we wouldn’t be very good at bonding as humans at all. However, our brains want us to bond, not with everyone, but with an important few and interestingly those same hormones in the brain that help us to bond in the first place are the same things that help to keep that bond fresh throughout our lives. We’re designed to bond and to trust some reciprocation.

Next-gen brains

Some recent studies report that kids who have been raised on computer games, texting, instant messages and e-mails are less able to interpret the facial expressions of others than those in the older generation. Gary Small, a neuroscientist at University of California at Los Angeles, (iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind) points out that younger folks are better at making quick decisions and keeping track of complex and constantly changing visual information. The theory goes that as kids socialize through technology more and more, their social brains are learning to process information relevant to those digital connections rather than the face-to-face needs of their parents. And because our brains are about as jam-packed as they can get, all that speed and visual input of computer screen neurons have to be formed in place of something else. The social “something” that is least important to this generation is the ability to read faces. Social relations are still extremely important to the brain, but they are taking on new forms and individuals’ brains are learning to cope with these changes in a single generation.

The in group

One of the advantages of the societies we build around us—families, communities, workplaces, nations—is that we can develop a level of trust within these groupings that is hard to replicate in a gathering of unrelated humans. Because we choose to be with a certain group, we know that we will see them again, we learn their ways, and we act and react appropriately. But when we are out of those groupings all bets are off. One of the more shockingly inappropriate actions that I’ve seen in “polite company” was when I was sitting in the Lufthansa First Class lounge in Frankfurt. A young, attractive, crazy-thin Japanese woman was sitting in a corner couch area really enjoying the Lindt chocolate truffles—you know, those chocolate balls wrapped in assorted foil wrappers—that were displayed in oversized martini glasses on each coffee table in the lounge. When I first noticed her, there was already a pile of wrappers and an empty martini glass in front of her. Then she walked to a nearby table and took the full martini glass back to her seat. As she was making her way through the ten or so balls in the new glass, her flight was called. She put her magazines into her designer carry-on bag and looked at the remaining Lindt truffles in her martini glass. Without looking up, she opened her bag and poured them in. Then, looking around the mostly empty lounge, a thought struck her … she rose and walked from table to table pouring chocolate balls from a dozen martini glasses into her bag. She never went to a seating area that was occupied, and she also never raised her gaze to anyone’s eye-level. She was single-minded in her gathering of about one hundred chocolate balls that morning before she wandered out of the lounge.

This is particularly odd if you have watched First Class passengers in Japanese airline lounges “bus” their own tables—wiping down their eating areas and carrying all of their cups and plates to the proper receptacles before they depart for their flights. In Japan, these passengers are models of proper behavior. But far from home and surrounded by “out group” people, our young Japanese friend was freed from her usual social constraints and able to indulge her inner chocoholic.

When we are interacting with out-groups, we feel less need to be civil and we can even become logically and naturally xenophobic. We don’t trust anyone much who is not part of our accepted group. In fact, we may even hate them. While the Good of Relationships is key to our long survival as humans, being on the wrong side of that Good can result in heartbreak, suffering and even death when the lines between “our” set of relationships and “their” set of relationships are drawn too clearly. Sam and Pearl Oliner, who studied thousands of people who had an opportunity to help Jews during World War II, determined that a majority of those non-Jewish Germans who rescued Jews during the Holocaust were motivated by “expressing and strengthening their affiliations and their social groups” (The Altruistic Personality, 1988, p. 221) The in-group/out-group distinctions played an important role in Nazi atrocities, but the Goods of Belief and Stability (rule of law) may have been even more important to those awful decisions. The Oliners’ work suggest that even with our societal fault lines, those who really do see “other people” (Relationships) as their most important Good are more likely to recognize the humanity in all of us. In other words, those who hold Relationships as their top priority are also those who are mostly likely to act to help their fellow humans in need—whether they are part of the in-group or not.

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