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The Social Brain
Editors’ Note: The economists’ traditional and convenient concept of human beings as rational actors who pursue self-interest has by now been thoroughly amended, if not debunked. But how the complicating factors, including gender, culture, emotion, and cognitive distortions, actually work in our brains has been elusive until more recently. Lately, however, neuroscience has begun to make inroads toward a better understanding of many of these factors. This chapter describes one large piece of the puzzle: the evolution of human beings’ brains as those of a highly interdependent, social species.
Negotiators often presume that the best negotiators are rational actors who can accurately assess a given situation, identify all possible options, and select the best options. As previous scholarship has shown, however, we rarely negotiate in such a simple and straightforward way—emotions, cognitive distortions, gender, and culture are among the many factors that complicate both how we negotiate and the range of potential outcomes. More recently, neuroscience has offered insight into how this may be due to the evolution of our brains. We evolved as a highly interdependent, social species. How our brains negotiate in a social species can be described as the workings of a social brain.
Most of our brain development happens after birth, such that we are created by our environments more than any other creature (Wexler 2008). This developmental process is what separates us from our biological forebears as well as our human contemporaries, because no two brains evolve in the same way. In other words, we begin life with shared genetic traits that allow us to socialize and to learn socially. And, in the process of growing up, we also respond variably to our environments, developing both individual and social selves. This degree of local adaptation has given humans an evolutionary advantage; unlike other animals, we can thrive on any part of the planet, and now, even seek new territory beyond (Wexler 2008). This has yielded tremendous variation in how we humans perceive, interact, and make changes in the world. Humans have also uniquely evolved the ability to shape our environment based on the inner sense of reality that matures through brain development, both socially and individually. We become “live wired” (Eagleman 2015) as socioindividuals. As a species, the good news is our creative ability to both adapt to and eventually craft our physical and social environments. Our ability to improve outcomes through successful negotiation theory and practice is one example of this.
While we might then want to end on a congratulatory note, neuroscientist Bruce Wexler (2008) raises a dilemma. The problem is how we give up adaptability as we mature, which neuroscientists study as loss of brain plasticity. When coupled with adult capacity to exert control over environments, this can lead to conflicts between adults trying to change each other rather than mutually determine co-existence. He argues that this was a strength back when people stayed in relatively isolated contexts. Variability was thus contained within simpler challenges of how to best adapt to a slowly changing context. When younger generations matured and challenged the ways of the old, this was to bridge manageable differences. The results were relatively stable yet locally adaptable cultures. Today, however, in a fast-paced and globalized world, the challenge of human variability has far outpaced that of our evolutionary ability to adapt. Wexler proposes that an inner biological need for consonance between internalized, individual sense of reality and external environments is an underlying cause of interpersonal and intergroup conflict. He thus offers a biological explanation (at least in part) for wars and protracted conflict (Wexler 2008). In reflecting on demographic trends, greater longevity may also exacerbate this challenge as generations stick around longer, and attempt to dominate or maintain the status quo rather than adaptively co-exist.
In this chapter, I use neurobiology and developmental psychology to help explain how negotiation happens through a social brain. We know this social brain through a unique creation within each of us, our own individual brain. Rather than a tension between choosing between social needs and individual self-interest, we negotiate as social individuals—or socioindividuals. The inspiration and most of the neuroscience data for this chapter comes from work by neuroscientists David Eagleman and...
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