The Science of The Social Brain: Why Knowing Less Means Understanding More

Dr. Michael O’Brien
While having a social brain means each of us knows less, it allows us to achieve more as a group.

The social brain hypothesis explains why societies benefit from specialization and delegation over generalization. In this article, we explore four leadership best practices informed by the social brain hypothesis.

Humor me for a moment. Think back to your commute this morning. You jumped into your car and – maybe after a few red lights – made it onto the highway. When you arrived at the office, perhaps you parked in the garage, grabbed an espresso from the barista downstairs, and finally made it to your desk.

You do this every day. You know how it works – or do you? Do you know how and why traffic lights turn green when they do? How the gate works at the parking garage? How the machine downstairs turns coffee and water into your morning espresso? I bet you’re nodding your head (or at least thinking “of course!”). But go ahead – try to explain exactly how each of each of those things happens. Not so simple.

That exercise is not to say we don’t know anything – but at the same time, it goes to show that to most of us, knowing something doesn’t really mean knowing exactly how it works. It just means having a basic understanding of it, and – if needed – knowing who or what can fill in the gaps if needed. And even if this might look like a shortfall on the surface, it’s actually a sign of our deeper intelligence.

The social brain

Scientists call this phenomenon the social brain. At a high level, the social brain hypothesis is what explains why communities are smarter as a group than an individual could ever be – why societies benefit from specialization and delegation over generalization.

A single human brain can only get so good at any number of tasks, which is why humans developed the communication and cognition skills to learn from one another. Because becoming an expert in one or two things, and learning just enough to get by about a lot of other things, is far more efficient than trying to be an expert in everything.

Learning the limitations of our individual brains, however, is not a diagnosis for failure. Understanding how to leverage our social nature, rather, can unlock an organization’s potential – as well as its leader’s. Here are four leadership best practices that utilize the social brain.

1. Practice Humility

One of the hallmarks of the social brain is that people almost always overestimate how much they know. Not how much they can understand, but how much they actually know – as in could recite with their eyes closed and fingers crossed. Because while we think we hold the answers to everything inside our own skulls, we actually get most of the information we use on a daily basis from the environment and people around us.

One of the keys to overcoming this trap is to train yourself to distinguish between what is inside and what is outside your head, according to Steve Sloman and Philip Fernbach, authors of The Knowledge Illusion, a book that explores the concept of the social brain.

Identifying the things we don’t have memorized is not an ignorance to be ashamed of, but a natural state that’s crucial for us to understand. Just as voters have a responsibility to themselves and their country to get educated about issues they don’t fully understand, leaders “have the responsibility to learn about their own ignorance and effectively take advantage of others’ knowledge and skills”, write Sloman and Fernbach.

2. Seek Explanations

Understanding your own ignorance is a critical first steps, and is not an easy one to take. But what might prove even more challenging is encouraging your co-workers to do the same. No one likes being told they don’t know something, which begs the question: How are you supposed to help your peers develop humility without alienating them?

For a strikingly difficult question, the answer is surprisingly simple: ask them to explain it to you. Just as I asked you to explain how traffic lights and espresso machines work at the beginning of this article, don’t be afraid to ask your team how certain aspects of their jobs work. If you can do this without challenging their authority, but by showing genuine interest, you will allow them to see the cracks in their own understanding and – hopefully – inspire them to adopt the same degree of humility as yourself.

3. Be Curious

Seeking these explanations will not only help your team embrace humility, but that level of curiosity – about your peers’ assessments, about your own decisions, and about new concepts to which you’re introduced – will help you add to the bank of knowledge inside your head whenever possible.

Our default setting is to understand the bare minimum we need to function, which is fine most of the time. Instead, try training yourself to flip that default setting off and ask, “how exactly does that work,” or “why do we (I, she, they, etc.) work that way?” That curious mindset can help you identify and hold onto the topics that would be more valuable inside your head than outside it.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Argue

One of the greatest benefits of working on a team – besides simply having more work hours to get things done – is being challenged by people with different beliefs and mindsets as your own. For it’s only in arguing with respected peers that we are able to expose the cracks in the beliefs that we assume as fact and actually change our minds.

And, according to Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, changing your mind is a hallmark of being a smart, analytical thinker, since the smartest people test their intuitions, rather than simply defending them. Using your team as a resource to not only understand the group’s “social knowledge” more deeply, but to challenge your own “internal knowledge” is crucial to not only leading as effective team, but also to contributing to one.

“The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.” Thomas Berger
“The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.” Thomas Berger