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Survival and the Social Brain
This article is mostly a review of an essay that appeared in Scientific American Mind (Sept/Oct 2016) entitled “Betting on People Power” by Alex “Sandy” Pentland.
Pentland has done extensive research on how people interact or fail to interact and the effects of that process upon organizational survival. He contrasts relatively rigid organizations with more fluid ones, asking questions such as which organizations will survive and how are the best decisions made.
With regards to the latter, Pentland champions maximum mutual, egalitarian problem solving processes. His extensive research indicates that in the stock trading business groups of 8-10 diverse individuals made almost 30 % better forecasts of the future than the best individual forecasters. In general, the best results in many situations came about when groups were both diverse in composition and in which everyone actively participated without dominating discussion leaders.
Pentland even developed a machine in which a floating ball displayed on a screen represents the conversational tide, showing at any time who is dominating the discussion and in this manner encouraging others to speak (and probably the dominator to quiet down). It proved most effective in meetings in which people participated remotely since it may be difficult to track communication dynamics.
The deeper issue here is the idea that we humans have developed over countless generations a “social brain.” As you probably know already, humans have proportionately large brains as compared with other mammals. So do other so-called “social” species, such as dogs and horses, that depend on mutual interactions to survive and thrive. Each of us has the capacity to interact socially, on a continuum, with those on the autistic spectrum the least gifted and some “social butterflies” and maybe charismatic individuals most blessed in this arena.
Survival ultimately depends on our ability to solve emerging problems as they arise. Pentland strives to maximize our ability to solve problems by utilizing our brain-derived set of social skills to sort through alternatives.
So here are a few questions for you to consider:
1) How likely are you to engage in group problem solving efforts as you grapple with important issues in your personal and private lives?
2) In your group discussions, how much do you encourage everyone to speak up?
3) Do you believe that group conversations will usually bring about better solutions for your concerns than just deciding what to do on your own?