Social Brain

"With a rising interest in neuroscience, we have an opportunity, which we must not squander, to sophisticate our understanding of ourselves."
– Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary

For the last two decades, the model of the rational individual- 'homo economicus'- that has underpinned our faith in democracy, reliance on the market, and trust in social institutions has been consistently undermined by social psychology, behavioural economics and neuroscience. The notion of a profit-maximising individual who makes decisions consciously, consistently and independently is, at best, a very partial account of who we are. Science is now telling us what most of us intuitively sense: humans are a fundamentally social species.

The rational individual construct was not based on naivety, but on the belief that this was the best model to help us plan our economies and organise our societies. However, a variety of social, political and environmental challenges, culminating in the current economic crisis, makes this model seem increasingly unhelpful. Above all, it fails to grasp that social context is not an afterthought, a variable to be controlled, but the defining feature of how we think, learn and behave.

The emerging early 21st century view of human nature is richer and more complex. We are

  • Constituted by evolutionary biology
  • Embedded in complex social networks
  • Largely habitual creatures
  • Highly sensitive to social and cultural norms
  • More rationalising than rational.
This emerging conception of human nature is radically different from the prevailing implicit view, but in public and private life many continue to act as if we had not learned anything useful about our brains, behaviour and biases in recent years. We therefore need to shed light on our typically implicit and often erroneous theories of human nature.

More precisely, we need to make prevailing theories of human nature more
  • accurate through research
  • explicit through public dissemination
  • empowering through practical engagement.
Through this ongoing process of thought and action, our project therefore seeks to:
  • support personal development and wellbeing
  • inform government policy
  • improve social, financial, environmental and educational practice.

Core thematic strands of the Social Brain programme

The Social Brain project focuses on three principle aspects of human nature: Habits, Decisions and Attention. Find out more about the importance of these aspects.

See also Social Brain reports and practical applications

Social Brain team

Dr Jonathan Rowson is director of The Social Brain Centre. Jonathan holds a first class degree in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from Oxford University, an Ed.M from Harvard University in Mind, Brain and Education, and an ESRC funded PhD from Bristol University. His Doctoral thesis is an inter-disciplinary and multi-method examination of the concept of wisdom, including a detailed analysis of the challenge of overcoming the psycho-social constraints that prevent people becoming 'wiser'. A chess Grandmaster, Jonathan was British Champion for three consecutive years 2004-6. He writes a weekly column for the Herald, Scotland’s national newspaper.

Nathalie Spencer: After 7 years working in the private sector in the UK and Germany, Nathalie read Dan Ariely's 'Predictably Irrational' and took a rational decision to change the course of her career. She is a behavioural economist with degrees (Cum Laude) from McGill and Maastricht universities. Her Masters thesis explored the effect of time and emotions on social cooperation, and her special interests are decision making, cognitive biases, and the psychological barriers to behaviour change.”