Leveraging social neuroscience in development projects

Social neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field that studies how our brain reacts under various social interactions. In this piece, I briefly outline why understanding social neuroscience will greatly improve the way in which we approach the design of projects and help us better anticipate how people may react to the projects and interventions we design.

Competing systems

You might have heard of ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’, sometimes referred to as fast and slow thinking. System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration (Kahneman, 2012).

Just as there is evidence from cognitive psychology of these two systems, so is there evidence from neuroscience of the existence of two systems: one impulsive and fast-acting and another which is more controlled and slow-acting. The first system often dictates how we interact with others in daily life, with its vigilant avoid/approach conditioning (Chein et al., 2011).

A social brain

The SCARF model simplifies and summarises the most important things we need to understand about System 1 in order to design contexts that help us to communicate effectively and smoothly (Rock, 2008).

SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. Because our survival depends on our social interactions, our need for these five things is as basic as our need for food and water.

Status focuses on our need for social standing, the need to be recognised, seen and valued. Certainty is about our need to know what will happen next and to feel secure. Autonomy refers to our need to feel that we made a decision freely. Relatedness is about the need to feel part of a group. Fairness is about the perception that the rules that apply to us apply to others.

Our brain’s sensitivity to our social environment is so strong that research shows that our brain processes social pain in the same way as physical pain (Eisenberger, 2013), as illustrated in the image below (Rock, n.d.)

Implications for programming

The fact that we share a need for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness and that a lack of these triggers a pain sensation in us has some interesting implications for how we design development projects.

Essentially, we can leverage our capacity for empathy, which is governed by our brain’s mentalising system, to a far greater extent. Mentalising refers to our ability to read the mental states of others, effectively putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

Let’s take the example of stigma reduction, and let’s say that we want to design a project that will prompt adolescents to be more empathic and less stigmatising to peers with a health condition. Masten et al., 2010 showed that prosocial behaviour can be promoted in adolescents by exposing them to simulations of situations where peers were subjected to social exclusion. The simulations led the adolescents to write empathic supportive messages to the peers they felt were wronged.

We see similar patterns when it comes to racial bias and discrimination. Our reaction to a member of an outgroup is very fast and reflexive (Azab, 2016). So, if we want to reconcile members of two clashing communities, we need to design projects that will build relatedness, certainty and fairness.

What this tells us is that solely relying on appealing to the rational part of our brain, System 2, with rational arguments alone is likely to be far less effective because it will not trigger the mentalising system. We need to use our innate and powerful capacity for empathy to design and execute better projects.

Azab, M. (2016). Why Is It Impossible to Not Judge People ? Psychology Today, 1–5. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuroscience-in-everyday-life/201610/why-is-it-impossible-not-judge-people

Chein, J. M., Albert, D., O’Brien, L., Uckert, K., & Steinberg, L. (2011). Peers increase adolescent risk taking by enhancing activity in the brain’s reward circuitry. Developmental Science, 14(2), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2010.01035.x

Eisenberger, N. I. (2013). The neural bases of social pain: Evidence for shared representations with physical pain. Psychosomatic Medicine, 74(2), 126–135. https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0b013e3182464dd1.The

Kahneman, D. (2012). Of 2 Minds: How Fast and Slow Thinking Shape Perception and Choice. Scientific American, 9, 1–15. https://bit.ly/2QQIjoW

Masten, C. L., Eisenberger, N. I., Pfeifer, J. H., & Dapretto, M. (2010). Witnessing peer rejection during early adolescence : Neural correlates of empathy for experiences of social exclusion. 5, 496–507. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470919.2010.490673

Rock, D. (n.d.). Managing with the Brain in Mind. https://www.oxfordleadership.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/OL-Managing-with-the-Brain-in-Mind-2019.pdf

Rock, D. (2008). SCARF : a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others SCARF : a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. NeuroLeadership.