the limits of human sociability
Are humans by nature social animals? My colleague, Adam Waytz, argues in a provocative essay for Edge.org 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.