the limits of human sociability

Are humans by nature social animals? My colleague, Adam Waytz, argues in a provocative essay for that the idea that humans are naturally social may be more myth than reality. That is, if we define human sociability as the tendency to be cooperative with others, compassionate, and empathetic, it’s hardly the case that humans will always act or think in a social way. Adam’s essay is geared towards psychologists, where the trend has been to describe humans’ brains, hormones, and cognition as innately social.

He points out various ways in which psychological research points out that this is just not true. Humans are as competitive as they are cooperative, and in certain situations competition overrides cooperation. Empathy isn’t an automatic response. Humans may have a strong in-group bias and a tendency to treat people outside of our group with suspicion and lack of trust. Social behaviors seem to be triggered by certain situational characteristics rather than being the default. Moreover, our capacity to be social may be much more limited than we have previously recognized.

Because motivation and cognition are finite, so too is our capacity to be social. Thus, any intervention that intends to increase consideration of others in  terms of empathy, benevolence, and compassion is limited in its ability to do so. At some point, the well of working memory on which our most valuable social abilities rely will run dry.

Rather than sociability being the natural response to human interaction, it may actually be an achievement of society that we have created the right institutions that enable sociability. Sociologists, of course, have a lot to say about the latter.

Written by brayden king

January 22, 2014 at 5:43 pm

Posted in brayden, culture, psychology

8 Responses

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  1. “Social” is a pretty vague word. It might be better to think about humans has having a need for affiliation. This need coexists with other needs, so it is not always at the forefront of behavior. However, just as people need a subsistence-level of food, people need a subsistence-level of affiliation. If a particular person isn’t being sociable at a particular moment, it could be that their need for affiliation is satisfied or that they have other concerns that temporarily outweigh their need for affiliation. The former is more likely.


    Chris M

    January 22, 2014 at 5:56 pm

  2. It is pretty ridiculous to define social as compassion, benevolence, etcetera. Ethologist would never define animal socialness in that way. Even the desire to engage in war is a type of social act. There are animals who only interact with each other for the purpose procreation. And then there are other animals who interact on a multiplicity of ways at regular intervals or continuously. Obviously, this is a spectrum as are most categories social behavior. Posed as an either/or proposition is unrealistic. However, I would contend that humans are amongst the more social animals, sitting to the right side of that spectrum.


    Elizabeth Jefferis Terrien

    January 22, 2014 at 6:43 pm

  3. I think this question has been competently wealth with by EO Wilson in his recent opus: The Social Conquest of the Earth.


    paul stokes

    January 22, 2014 at 11:41 pm

  4. Waytz just blows that straw man out of the water!! He interprets “by nature social” to mean “infinitely, unboundedly, and in all contexts social”. Since no-one shares his interpretation, his essay has no meaningful audience.



    January 23, 2014 at 5:45 am

  5. why not just take the more inclusive/evolutionary stance that we are always already manipulating our environs to try and better meet our interests/biases and avoid any implicit moralism?



    January 23, 2014 at 2:28 pm

  6. Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft :: psychology and sociology. Is that still the story?



    January 24, 2014 at 8:25 pm

  7. my comment got deleted. sheesh



    January 26, 2014 at 4:56 am

  8. @whatthewhat: You aren’t the only one. Lots of comments on this one going down the memory hole.


    John Philoponus

    January 27, 2014 at 11:17 pm

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