The reach of mechanisms in the social brain


About two decades ago, the notion of the ‘social brain’ emerged as an analytic paradigm in some fields of the brain sciences. The general idea is that the human brain evolved under selective pressures that favoured cooperation. Hence, if we want to understand human decision making and behaviour, we always need to consider how they might affect capabilities and potential for cooperation. I think that this has important implications for our general ideas about the scope of causal mechanisms that link neuronal phenomena with observed behaviour.

In most neuroeconomics and behavioural economics, the idea prevails that causal mechanisms start ‘inside’ the brain and become manifest in observed behaviour. Coming back to Kahneman’s work that I criticized in previous blog posts, his ‘systems’, even metaphorically understood, are ‘inside’ the brain, and so he sometimes refers to results of the brain sciences to complete his explanations. I think that in the ‘social brain’ framework, this is fundamentally misleading. However, it is the major reason why his psychology and economics can be reconciled in behavioural economics. Both agree on methodological individualism and adopt a shared notion of causal mechanisms that work ‘inside-out’. Accordingly, the normative standard for judging failures of decision making is individual rationality. There is a problematic fusion of explanatory models and normative stances, or ‘descriptive individualism’ and ‘normative individualism’.

If we think in terms of the social brain, we always need to pose the question whether an observed alleged failure of individual rationality can be explained by causal mechanisms that emerged under evolutionary pressures for enabling cooperation. I argue that this also includes the possibility that the mechanisms themselves are social in the sense of involving close interactions between individual and social phenomena. I suggest that a powerful framework is offered by George Herbert Mead’s social psychology (for more on that, see my recent short paper cited below).

Mead distinguishes between the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’. Although the source of human action is rooted in the ‘I’, it is always mediated by the ‘Me’. The ‘Me’ an internal cognitive construct that embodies our perception of how others perceive us. This comes close to an internalization of social roles, but in a more fundamental sense, not just related to social structures, but the ‘other’ in a most comprehensive sense. Mead argues that even in the flow of action, we cannot perceive ourselves without mediation by the ‘Me’. That means, there is a continuous interaction between internal forces that generate actions and the cognitive mediation of the social context embodied by others, from which our self-perception emerges that results in ongoing decisions, choices and behaviours. Mead thinks that therefore memory is crucial in driving actions, in the sense of different layers of memory, the most basic the very short term memory which continuously mirrors what we have done seconds before. Therefore, any kind of behavioural control mechanism is governed by structures of memory and is therefore part and parcel of the ‘Me’, since memory is mediated by symbolic repertoires which enable the ongoing creation of the ‘Me’ as counterpart of the ‘I’.

In Kahneman’s approach, memory is a systematic source of distortions and cognitive failures. He distinguishes between decision utility and experienced utility. Decision utility is based on memory, and he presents empirical evidence that our memories of past experiences, even in the short term, distort actual experience in real time. That would be an amazing fact, if we consider this in the light of evolutionary theory. Why should an organism develop structures of memory that systematically guide its decisions away from maxima of benefits generated by actions? My hunch would be that organisms would be positively selected which evolve memories that are more accurate.

I cannot present the solution to that puzzle, but I think it lies in Mead’s approach. If Kahneman’s decision utility is embedded in memory structures and contents, we need to ask, how do these contribute to constructing the ‘Me’ that interacts with the ‘I’? The ‘I’ would be the carrier of Kahneman’s experienced utility. Thus, we can ask whether the divergence between the two kinds of utility would serve a function in enabling human sociality.

Mead also adopted a Darwinian framework for grounding his theory of the self. So, he anticipated modern ‘social brain’ approaches. Based on this thinking, I suggest that mechanisms in explaining human action should adopt complex notions of causality which involve tightly integrated interactions between internal and external phenomena. Mead points to the crucial role of language in mediating ‘I’ and ‘Me’. More generally, we can think of symbolic media that are essential parts of causal mechanisms generating actions, and which are fundamentally social in nature. So, in the social brain mechanisms would not necessarily coincide with the physical borders that separate the body from its environment.


For more on Mead and neuroeconomics, see my paper’“Economics, Neuroeconomics, and the Problem of Identity”, Performativity, Identity and Economic Naturalism: A Comment on John Davis’ “Economics, Neuroeconomics, and the Problem of Identity”. Schmollers Jahrbuch: Vol. 136, No. 2, pp. 227-236. doi: 10.3790/schm.136.2.227


Funded by: