"With a rising interest in neuroscience, we have an opportunity, which we must not squander, to sophisticate our understanding of ourselves."
– Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary
For the last two decades, the model of the rational individual- 'homo economicus'- that has underpinned our faith in democracy, reliance on the market, and trust in social institutions has been consistently undermined by social psychology, behavioural economics and neuroscience. The notion of a profit-maximising individual who makes decisions consciously, consistently and independently is, at best, a very partial account of who we are. Science is now telling us what most of us intuitively sense: humans are a fundamentally social species.
The rational individual construct was not based on naivety, but on the belief that this was the best model to help us plan our economies and organise our societies. However, a variety of social, political and environmental challenges, culminating in the current economic crisis, makes this model seem increasingly unhelpful. Above all, it fails to grasp that social context is not an afterthought, a variable to be controlled, but the defining feature of how we think, learn and behave.
The emerging early 21st century view of human nature is richer and more complex. We are
- Constituted by evolutionary biology
- Embedded in complex social networks
- Largely habitual creatures
- Highly sensitive to social and cultural norms
- More rationalising than rational.
This emerging conception of human nature is radically different from the prevailing implicit view, but in public and private life many continue to act as if we had not learned anything useful about our brains, behaviour and biases in recent years. We therefore need to shed light on our typically implicit and often erroneous theories of human nature.
More precisely, we need to make prevailing theories of human nature more
- accurate through research
- explicit through public dissemination
- empowering through practical engagement.
- support personal development and wellbeing
- inform government policy
- improve social, financial, environmental and educational practice.
Social Brain reports
Our first Social Brain report, Changing the Subject, developed the idea of 'neurological reflexivity' in which an awareness of how our brains function increasingly shapes the way we use them. Neurological reflexivity is a very practical notion, designed to make a tangible difference in people's lives and work through informed self-awareness. Our Steer report confirmed the promise of this approach, motivated by the belief that if knowledge is power, knowledge about your own nature ought to be particularly empowering. We are now in the process of developing our Social Brain project into a wider programme of work with multiple strands informed by three core themes.
Core thematic strands of the Social Brain programme
Social Brain team
Dr Jonathan Rowson leads the Social Brain project. Jonathan holds a first class degree in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from Oxford University, an Ed.M from Harvard University in Mind, Brain and Education, and an ESRC funded PhD from Bristol University. His Doctoral thesis is an inter-disciplinary and multi-method examination of the concept of wisdom, including a detailed analysis of the challenge of overcoming the psycho-social constraints that prevent people becoming 'wiser', similar to what the RSA terms the 'social aspiration gap'. A chess Grandmaster, Jonathan was British Champion for three consecutive years 2004-6.
Dr Emma Lindley is Senior Researcher on the Social Brain Project. Emma holds a first class degree in English Language and Literature from Liverpool University, an MSc in Educational Research and an ESRC funded PhD, both from the University of Manchester. Emma has also worked in publishing, student guidance at Leeds College of Music, events management for Opera North, and theatre-in-education in the third sector. Her doctoral work focused on anti-stigma mental health education and involved an exploration of young people's understandings of mental illness. Emma's work led to the development of the Inclusive Dialogue approach to education about mental illness and has received media attention from the BBC and the Times Educational Supplement.