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Video Summary: The Social Brain and the Workplace: Talks at Google with Matthew Lieberman


New research in social psychology is overturning old truths about human nature and suggesting fresh approaches to employee motivation. Advances in brain imaging technology promise to revolutionize workplace practices, including recruiting and performance management. In his fascinating Talk at Google, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman describes these advances, offers insights that could transform management approaches, and looks at the potential of brain imaging in schools and workplaces.


  • Humans are selfish, but they’re also highly social.
  • Enhance organizational performance by meeting employees’ needs for love and belonging.
  • New brain-scanning technology can help identify burnout and career aptitude.

Video Summary: The Social Brain and the Workplace: Talks at Google with Matthew Lieberman


Humans are selfish, but they’re also highly social.

For centuries, researchers thought humans are motivated solely by self-interest: homo economicus. But research suggests people also have intrinsic social motivations. For example, people – and all mammals – suffer “social pain” when they sense their social connections are under threat. Research shows social pain is more than a metaphor: The brain responds in the same way to social pain as to physical pain – and taking Tylenol will relieve social pain the same way it relieves a headache.

People also experience social pleasure – which, like social pain, shows up in brain scans as activity in the ventral striatum. When people experience being liked, loved, understood or respected, they feel pleasure, and the ventral striatum simultaneously lights up. This part of the brain system also shows activity when people do things for others, suggesting that service gives people the exact same kind of pleasure as receiving love or respect.

“Our social operating system is part of the basic components of who we are as mammals.”

The brain even has a separate network that processes social thinking. The analytical and social networks tend to seesaw, operating one at a time, so when activity in one increases, the activity of the other decreases. But brain scans show that when the analytical network is at rest, the social thinking network automatically – and instantly – comes online. This doesn’t happen in the opposite direction; the analytical system doesn’t automatically activate when the social network takes a break. It seems evolution has created a human brain that favors social thinking.

Enhance organizational performance by meeting employees’ needs for love and belonging.

Recruiters usually try to hire the most talented, intelligent, experienced, best-educated candidates – but research in economics shows bottom-line results depend not on human capital per se but on social capital: the connections among employees. Obviously, an employee’s talent will go to waste if the employee is working in isolation and other parts of the organization can’t benefit from that talent. The personal development platform, Humanize, studied the effect of synchronizing break times, so workers could connect socially during their downtime, and found the increased social connections that resulted had powerful effects on team cohesion, productivity and workers’ stress levels.

“[Employees] often say their number one reason for loving the company they work at is the co-workers they get to work with.”

Increases in wealth create increases in happiness only at the lowest income levels. Above the poverty level, income hikes offer diminishing returns in terms of happiness. What does make people happier: time spent with friends and family. People who love their jobs often cite co-workers as the primary reason they do. Companies primarily use financial incentives to motivate people, but money meets only a subset of the needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy. Social approaches tap into people’s needs for love and belonging that many companies currently neglect.

New brain-scanning technology can help identify burnout and career aptitude.

Neuroscientists are measuring brain activity with a new type of imaging technology, called functional near infrared spectroscopy (FNIRS), which detects the differences in light absorption in blood. Thanks to the light weight and portability of these units, neuroscientists can conduct research that had been impossible with MRI scanners. Researchers have found, for example, that when people are hearing messages suggesting better health habits, subjects who intend to implement the changes show activity in the medial prefrontal region of the brain. Subjects show activity in a different region of the brain, the right dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, when they’re resisting the change.

“This could become a partial substitute where you say, ‘I don’t test well, but I’ll probably do the actual thing well because my brain looks like the people who do the actual thing well.”

With the same technique, researchers have identified the brain activity that corresponds to burnout. With this information, managers could find out which employees are experiencing burnout and intervene to help them. The technology also has potential to detect aptitude in young people to help them choose a career path. This could provide a tool for improving diversity in industries, as it could discover students with promise who might not test well, for example, and ensure they get support to advance their education. With the addition of machine learning, the technology could serve as a neural “guidance counselor,” provide matchmaking services or even, eventually, assist people in their emotional development.

About the Speaker

Matthew Lieberman is professor of social psychology at UCLA, where he serves as director of the UCLA Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab. He is the co-founder and chief scientist of Resonance, where he studies how the human brain understands and engages with the social world. He is also the best-selling author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.

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