The science behind why our brains make us cooperate (or disagree)

Studies from neuroscience highlight how the brain both helps with and prevents collaboration.

  • Neuroscientists identify the parts of the brain that affect our social decision-making.
  • Guilt has a large affect on social interactions, find the researchers.
  • To find ways to cooperate, people need to let go of fear and anxiety, suggest studies

Why do we decide to work on a project or pursue a goal with someone? Or why do we treat some people like there's no way we can find any common language? Neuroscience says that the human brain contains underlying causes to all human cooperation and social decision-making.

One difficulty in studying human behavior is that it's hard to record brain activity while the behavior is happening. You don't see many people outfitted with MRIs as they confront each other in the ebb and flow of daily life. But a new slate of advanced devices allowed neuroscientists a greater peek behind the mind's curtain. Studies presented at the 2017 annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience offered a variety of explanations for our behavior with respect to others.

What the scientists found is that a wide array of neural circuits are engaged when we interact with others socially. Research on mice showed that when an area of the hippocampus, which is responsible for our memories, is stimulated, aggression increases. This suggests that memories can impact social aggression.

Such a conclusion gels with our experience. Memories of a past wrong often inform our actions. It follows also that for aggression to be minimized, memories should not play such a strong role in how we make decisions. In reality, of course, that is a hard goal to achieve for some.

Another area of the brain that affects our social life is the amygdala, the gray matter present in each cerebral hemisphere that impacts our emotions, especially fear. Researchers found that neuronal activity in the amygdala of primates is involved in predicting choices made by a partner. That suggests how this part of the brain has an impact on our observational learning and decision-making in social situations.

Lest you think humans are driven by altruistic motives during games, neuroscientists also learned that strategic thinking rather than empathy is an important piece of the puzzle that's responsible for how we make decisions with respect to others.

Once we are already working with a person, research has shown that the neural activity in the primary motor cortices of monkeys performing a social task can become highly synchronized. This area of the brain relates information about the task but also makes note of how close the two primates are to each other.

Psychiatry and neuroscience Professor Robert Greene from the University of Texas, confirmed that "we now see evidence of shared and interactive neuronal activity between social partners that extends to such things as cooperative behavior and learning and decision-making."

Notably, a study from 2011 by a team of University of Arizona researchers, found another key aspect that drives human cooperation (or lack thereof) - guilt. By using fMRI imaging on participants playing economic games, the scientists discovered much activity in areas of the brain involved in guilt-related behaviors. This was particularly so when the subjects decided to return money expected by hypothetical investors. When the participants decided not to return the money, the reward center of the brain lit up.

This means that two different neural structures are involved when we ponder whether to meet someone's expectations. Guilt has significant influence on the decision to cooperate with someone. Of course, as the researchers also showed, some people are more affected by feelings of guilt than others.

Guilt can also drive our feelings of moral outrage, in a fact that explains why much of our interaction on social media often devolves into anger rather than a desire to collaborate. A 2017 study from psychology professors Dr. Zachary Rothschild from Bowdoin College and Dr. Lucas Keefer from the University of Southern Mississippi linked feelings of guilt to making people angrier, causing a desire to punish third parties. In particular, American subjects of the study who read that Americans were responsible for driving climate change (rather than, for example, the Chinese) were more likely to get outraged with "multinational oil corporations". Another reason for that, as the researched uncovered, moral outrage makes you feel less guilty and more moral.

How do we get beyond some of the instinctual responses of our brain that may prevent us from cooperating with others? In a video for Big Think, Sarah Ruger, the director of Free Expression, at the Charles Koch Institute, highlights the work of neuroscientist Dr. Beau Lotto, who suggests that awe and play "can cause people to let go of their fear, let go of their anxiety so that they enter a mental state where they're capable of being curious and entertaining a new experience." Check out her video here:

When we encounter disagreeable ideas and situations where we just don't agree with someone, we don't often think about our brain's role in our ultimate reaction to the situation. But if we are mindful of the processes that take place, we should be able to take a larger view and find the courage to get past the sticking points, moving towards cooperation.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.

More From Charles Koch Foundation
Related Articles

The most undervalued skill? Lateral thinking.

Our society mostly emphasizes developing logical, procedural thinking skills, but this isn't the only way to come up with great ideas. Forgetting to develop our lateral thinking skills may mean missing out on unexpected innovations.

Photo by davisco on Unsplash
Mind & Brain
  • Lateral thinking is a way of approaching problems. It deliberately forgoes obvious approaches in favor of oblique or unexpected ones.
  • Deliberately ignoring perfectly good but straightforward solutions enables us to find hidden innovations we would otherwise miss.
  • Edward de Bono, who developed the concept of lateral thinking, lays out 4 specific lateral thinking techniques: awareness, random stimulation, alternatives, and alteration.

Here's a puzzle: A man walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a glass of water, who instead pulls out a gun, cocks it, and points it at the man. The man thanks the bartender and walks out. Why did the man thank the bartender?

There's no way to arrive at the answer (which appears at the end* of this article) without asking questions, testing the different elements of the story to see what missing information hasn't been provided. It's an example of a lateral thinking puzzle, a type of puzzle that requires creative, sometimes oblique thinking to arrive at the answer. In essence, lateral thinking is a method of approaching a problem by deliberately forgoing obvious methods of reasoning. It requires one to consider a given issue from unlikely angles, uncovering innovative solutions as a result.

Traditional thinking is vertical, moving step-by-step to a logical conclusion based off of the available data. Lateral thinking, however, is horizontal, putting the emphasis on generating many ideas while de-emphasizing the details of how those ideas could be implemented. Both vertical and lateral thinking are complementary: Without lateral thinking, vertical thinking would be too narrow-minded; without vertical thinking, lateral thinking would produce many possible solutions but no plans to implement them.

Despite their complementary nature, our society really values and focuses on improving vertical thinking. We believe that adequate training on specific techniques and systems will produce a talented engineer, lawyer, or doctor. But when it comes to professions that rely on creative, generative, lateral skills, we tend to assume that only those born with innate talent can excel in them. Even when it comes to the more vertically minded professions like engineering, creativity is seen as a desirable bonus that great engineers are born with.

Two stages of thinking

Psychologist Edward de Bono, who developed the concept of lateral thinking, argued that the brain thinks in two stages: The first is a perceiving stage, where the brain chooses to frame its environment in a certain way, identifying a particular pattern. The second stage uses that pattern, that particular way of looking at the environment, and builds upon it to reach a conclusion. No matter how effective we are at the vertical thinking of the second stage, better vertical thinking can never correct errors that have arisen in the first stage. In order to more accurately perceive patterns in our environment, we have to develop our lateral thinking skills.

In the video below, author David Epstein illustrates this principal through the case of Japanese repairman Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi wasn't a particularly gifted engineer, but he perceived his environment in a way that his more talented and specialized peers were not able to. Because they had specialized so much, these more traditionally talented engineers could only frame their environment in terms of the specific technologies they specialized in. Yokoi, on the other hand, saw how various older — and therefore overlooked — pieces of technology could work together. The result was the Nintendo Game Boy.

Lateral thinking: The reason you’ve heard of Nintendo and Marvel

Learning to think laterally is, almost by definition, counterintuitive. Fortunately, de Bono developed some practical techniques for developing this overlooked capability. In his paper, "Information Processing and New Ideas — Lateral and Vertical Thinking," de Bono described four such techniques. Here they are:

  1. Awareness: Being aware of the way the brain processes information is the first step to improving the lateral thinking process. It's important to recognize the brain's tendency to rely on established patterns of thinking before starting to work on a new problem.
  2. Random stimulation: Often when we're trying to think about some issue, we shut out all outside stimuli so we can focus. However, allowing unplanned, outside stimuli can disrupt our reliance on imperfect frameworks. Paying attention to randomness can propel our thinking to new insights.
  3. Alternatives: de Bono argued that even if there is an apparently suitable solution to a problem, it can be useful to set it aside and deliberately consider alternative approaches, regardless of how ridiculous they might seem. Doing so will help you to consider a problem from all possible angles.
  4. Alteration: This technique consists of the deliberate alteration of available options, like doing the opposite of an implied direction or reversing any relationship between elements of the problem. This can include denying elements that are taken for granted, breaking large patterns down into tiny fragments, or translating a relationship to an analogy and then translating it back again just to see what changed. Arbitrarily altering elements of the problem space can produce novel tools to build a solution with.

--

*The man has the hiccups and was hoping to cure it with a glass of water. Seeing this, the bartender decided to scare the man to cure his hiccups. Realizing he no longer had the hiccups, the man thanked the bartender and left.

Not enough sleep throws your circadian rhythm, leading to potential cognitive problems

Sleep deprivation leads to a shutdown in the production of essential proteins.

Photo by Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Two new studies indicate what happens when your natural circadian rhythm is disrupted by not enough sleep.
  • The production of essential proteins is disrupted by a lack of sleep, which could result in cognitive decline.
  • From dementia to an uptick in obesity, sleep deprivation wreaks havoc in your physiology.
Keep reading Show less

Why older people should be allowed to change their legal age

Discrimination against people because of their age is a real phenomenon.

Thomas Vilhelm/Cover/Getty Images
Sex & Relationships

Let's say that on average you are in better shape than other people of your age. You are more able than them: quicker, sprightlier, livelier.

Keep reading Show less