Are Humans Hardwired to be Social? Are Humans Naturally Social Creatures?
Humans are hardwired to be social beings. We naturally cooperate, care, and compete. From quarks, to cells, to plants, to animals, cooperation is in our DNA. This fundamental system is most easily explained by the genetic mission of most life on earth: “to procreate, thrive, and survive“, but is better described by looking at social systems in action and seeing their dependence on competition and cooperation (both “social” acts).
Humans are naturally social creatures, and barring scarcity of natural resources, it’s hard to argue being anti-social is a trait “fit” for success.
One could argue that what we think of as anti-social is actually just a type of social that is “selfish“. Selfish social traits include self-serving behavior (the manipulation of others for personal gain), and a focus on “a tight knit circle” (AKA a positive social relationship only with an in-group).
To look at our social hardwiring is to look at human behavior and biology through the lens of the natural and social sciences (meaning there are many deep and interesting places to explore, regardless of whether we personally take an individualist or collectivist stance). Let’s start with an overview of how we connect, and then look at specific arguments for and against “being hardwired to be social”.
Paul Bloom: The Psychology of Everything. This video is helpful for understanding how social bias and wiring drive our social behavior.
What Does Hardwired Mean? Hardwired means “genetically programmed”. You can say it’s “instincts”, which are similar but not exactly the same as automated reflexes. Non-hardwired behavior is “learned”. On this page we show how humans are social beings, not just in terms of nurture, but in terms of nature.
Collective Intelligence and Social Programing – Psychological, Neurological, and Sociological Proofs of Humans as Social Beings
From Edward Bernays, to the way children interact in the school yard, to our genetic and social programing, many cases can be made for collective intelligence being fundamental to the human experience.
Looking at our genetics, our neurological makeup, biases, and decades of social experiments it’s hard to conclude that humans are wired to be anti-social (even being social for selfish reasons is social). Rather it seems obvious that humans are genetically and socially programed to be social creatures.
The proofs are likely more vast than can be written on a single page, but consider the following examples that point toward humans being social creatures:
- Our body is comprised of 37 trillion cells, that all started as once cell (fertilized egg) and share the same DNA, and those cells are made from star stuff. Everything from quarks, to atoms, to molecules, to cells, to our organs work in tandem to make us who we are.
- One of our cell types is the mirror neuron, scientists think the mirror neuron helps us empathize and learn through observation. Empathy is a very core and social trait.
- Almost all modern day humans live in states, work in companies, are part of families, purposefully seek out companionship, etc. Almost all naturally occurring systems we participate in are social systems.
- Procreation, economy, and war all require teamwork; and its hard to deny these foundations of society and their role in our every day lives. In-fact, nearly all the “pillars” of society (math, sciences, arts, economy, politics, food distribution, law) all rely on social networking. Even the hunters and gathers needed to work together prior to having organized societies.
- Many different fields of psychology look at group psychology and collective intelligence. For instance, game theory might be applied to the sociological mechanics of sharing. See a great article on Game Theory for Parents by Scientific American.
- There are no new ideas, just new ways to recombine old ones (we copy, transform, and combine old ideas into “new ones”). We can think of all the ideas humans put out into the world as our “collective intelligence”, a sort of group intelligence only possible through collaboration (one can also argue for a more physic collective consciousness in humans, like insects have, but that is metaphysics).
- When two people invent or discover something in or around the same time it’s called multiple discovery. This happens all the time, and why things like patents and related lawsuits can be a little lame. You know that organic fast food restaurant idea you came up with, so did many others. Once new information comes out (like the proof of gravitational waves) we all get the same inspiration and same information at the same time. This results in many of us having similar “new ideas” when “the time is ripe”.
- Small world theory shows we are connected by, on average, about 6 degrees of separation. That means me, you, Kevin Bacon, Mark Zuckerberg, and the gal at the corner store in South Korea are all, on average, less than six interpersonal connections away.
- Our brains are complex, but generally perception, memory, association, and empathy are central to how we process information and communicate. Much of our neural network is focused on communicating with a group, there is a whole field to study in this regard. See re-wiring neural networks, types of memory, or using symbols as language.
- Studies have shown that diverse groups make us more creative, diligent, and harder-working helping us to spot problems we wouldn’t have considered otherwise. This sort of teamwork requires a more open minded thinking. Remember it is the individuals in the groups are what makes the groups diverse. See How Diversity Makes us Smarter by Scientific American.
- One could speculate that the most popular things to on the internet include social topics like: Social Media (social), Online games (social), Pornography (typically the fantasy of interpersonal interaction), Finance (arguably selfish, but collective in terms of money and markets), Animals (interspecies social), Blogging / Forums (both interpersonally and collective), etc.
- And lastly, but not least-ly, my personal favorite GAMES! Games are a big mainstay of cultures over the years (the first games we have proof of were played in ancient Egypt). Humans love games, even a zero-player game can be somewhat social. The most popular games, are arguably, competitive sports. Again game theory shows us phenomena like our natural inclination toward sharing or our aversion to inequality and the negative social reactions of this.
In-Group V. Out-Group
Despite strong arguments for competition and cooperation being central to our existence, there are plenty of instances of anti-social selfish behavior. If we consider “social” to be having a big in-group, and anti-social to be having a small in-group, then we can say there are most certainly degrees of social.
- We can consider those who have small in-groups to have degrees of anti-social behavior, sometimes with success.
- We can also of course consider the autistic child or the person who struggles to understand and express their emotions.
- We can also consider the serial narcissist who cares only for their own gain. Again, we can see this person can have relative success by “being anti-social”.
In all these cases, there is a degree of social behavior required, but each forces us to look carefully at ways in which humans are naturally social.
TIP: In-group (part of your circle), out-group (not part of your circle). Circle being hardwired or acquired group. Learn more about out-group / in-group.
Not Every Behavior is Social in Practice
So, to be clear, the above isn’t mean to imply that every life-form or behavior is equally social by nature, it’s to say the fundamental genetic mission of most life-forms relies on cooperation and competition (which are social by nature). It’s also to say, that according to the theory of evolution, life-forms that work together well are more apt to survive and pass on their genes. When those who form groups survive, the genes related to the desire to be social are passed on to the next generation.
We can see this in the way babies react to their family, the way mothers react to babies, the way we react to leaders, the way we admire heroes, the way we fear strangers, all our social bias, etc. Given all this and more, we have very strong evidence to theorize that humans, like most life on earth, are “hardwired to be social”.
To better understand this theory, let’s look at how cells and bacteria work together to form life, how groups of animals and plants work together to thrive, and how our biology plays a role in our own desire to cooperate, care, and compete. We’ll also look a bit at when being social backfires, how being social can be selfish, and how sometimes organisms benefit from being “lone wolves”.
Systems involved in the organization in the human body. Before we look at the psychological and sociological aspects of being social, let’s start by reminded ourselves that our bodies are made up of trillions of independent cells working together to form organs, which work together to form us.
TIP: Above we made the case for and against social hardwiring, below we cover many examples of teamwork in the physical and social sciences.
Social Evolution: From our Cells on Up, Being Social is all about Procreation and Survival
Evolution shows us that natural selection tends to favor organisms which work well in groups. This can be confirmed by looking at the ~7.77 million species of animals and ~298,000 species of plants on earth. We sometimes see rogues and loners, but working together is more common. The most common example of working together is in the process of procreation.
- From quarks, to atoms, to molecules, to elements, to cells systems work based on cooperation and competition.
- Unless you are a single-celled organism procreation means teamwork.
- Even if you are a single-celled organism, “procreation” means splitting apart and becoming two daughter cells (which is a kind of teamwork). This process allows cells to multiply, thrive and evolve to survive changing environments.
- Complex celled organisms and many single-celled organisms are symbiotic. This means they work in tandem with other organisms to survive. There is evidence supporting the endosymbiotic theory, which means that cells may well have worked together for so long that they became interdependent parts of a single entity in order to better survive in their environment.
- All life on earth is built from countless cells (37 trillion for humans) and countless bacteria (over 100 trillion). Our entire body is created from living organisms working together (and empty space). All of those cells start as one cell, the fertilized egg. To get a fertilized egg, humans must procreate.
- In other words, like humans, all beings that procreate (aside from single-celled organisms) are created from a complex system of organisms working together.
- The drive to procreate (through either splitting apart or coming together) is “hardwired” in the DNA of all life forms. All forms of procreation are forms of teamwork. Procreation is dependent on some level of social interaction.
Are we hardwired to be social? And if we are, how can this backfire?
FACT: Working in groups creates what we call “collective intelligence”. Two heads are better than one as they say. Given the fact that it’s typically advantageous to work in groups, we see it naturally occur in many instances in nature. In this respect cooperation could be considered the “most fit of all traits“.
How Working Together in Groups Helps Survival
Just as the organisms inside our body work together to ensure their existence (and typically incidentally ours), the organisms that cells and bacteria make (essentially plants and animals) work together in just the same way to ensure their own survival (and typically the Earth’s as well).
- Most organisms work in groups. Cooperation is key to survival. Cooperation can take many forms, it can be the hive mind of insects, the collective intelligence of a school of fish, or a pack of wolves trapping pray.It can be humans hunting and gathering with tools, humans building a civilization on the fertile crescent with financial and political social structures, or modern humans crowd-sourcing, creating startups, pooling venture capital, or even updating Wikipedia (or you know, commenting below. Just sayin’).
- Because working together is so important, our bodies are hardwired to reward us with chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, when we work together. We feel good when we care for a child; we feel good when we help a neighbor; we feel good when we fornicate; we feel good when we teach. Our hormones also reinforce many behaviors that drive our desire to work in groups. (There is a whole field dedicated to “hormones and behavior” i.e. behavioral endocrinology)
- There are many instances of cooperation, care, and competition in nature. Typically inter-group violence serves to establish the strongest or smartest member of the group as a leader. The role of a leader or Alpha is to protect the group and ensure the most dominant genes are passed on to future generations.
In short, “the selfish gene” is not concerned with the individual; it’s concerned with the generational survival of the group through procreation. A large portion of your genetic makeup is attuned to this fact, be it by nature or design.
What are our social superpowers? Tedx has the answer.
More Sociology, Biology, and Neuroscience Behind Teamwork
So we know that we can see cells working together, bacteria working together, we can see animals and plants working together, we can see billions of examples inside and outside of us, but now let’s look a little deeper at our own biology to see how it reinforces this theme of cooperation.
- One of the unique traits of humans is the complexity of our intelligence. We can communicate complex ideas to future generations through language. Our morality depends on our complex thinking abilities and our empathetic abilities. We even have “mirror neurons” which can learn from seeing and empathizing with other organisms.
- The complex tools we build offer us a new type of cooperation. We can rely less on other humans for the heavy lifting and use machines and computers to help us. This is still a form of cooperation.
- The way our memories and neurons work in general reinforces the idea that we work well in groups. Humans can only learn from external stimulus. So unless we communicate with other humans, we cannot be the socially and technologically advanced creatures we are today. The most important social relationships of all, the relationship between mother and child for that first 9 months, is a good indicator of the importance our species places on social interaction and our need to form groups in order to survive.
- Our drive to compete and thrive can be misinterpreted as a selfish individualism and a lack of care for others, but it may not be what it appears. One interesting study looked at gaming and how it made people happy. Online games like World of Warcraft are focused on coming together as groups to gather resources, accomplish goals, “level up”, and beat the environment. Even player versus player competition is one of a “game” rather than a “war” nature.
- From Facebook to video games, the way we use technology to connect mirrors how our brains re-wire our social interactions. We see patterns repeat in our biology, the tools we build, and the way we connect with each other. When we connect, we may be a little smarter, a little happier, and a little more able to survive our current environment.
Jane McGonigal with Ted Talks this time. How video games shed light on our need to cooperate.