Do me a favour – the reciprocal development of the RSA’s Connected Communities and Social Brain projects - RSA

Do me a favour – the reciprocal development of the RSA’s Connected Communities and Social Brain projects


  • Education
  • Social brain
  • Communities

My name is Rohan Talbot, the new intern with the Connected Communities and Social Brain projects. One of my first duties is to write something on the relationship between these two projects, so here goes.

If a person wishes to fix a broken car, they must understand its internal components, how they function, and how these functions relate to other components. If the problem lies in a small part of the engine, then attempting to fix the car as a whole entity would be fruitless. Similarly, if we wish to solve societal problems, it is important to understand the behaviour of individuals since it plays such an important part in shaping the effectiveness of the community as a whole.

Of course, underpinning any model of social interaction are assumptions regarding human motivations and behaviour, but these models have typically assumed that humans act in a way that is referred to as ‘rational’; i.e. that individuals are self-interested and seeking to maximise personal gains. Such models of human behaviour therefore give relatively few opportunities for pro-social action (either from individuals or whole groups) compared to other approaches, since they expect that people are unlikely to expend resources and engage in behaviours that do not directly benefit themselves. We therefore need a fuller appreciation for our social nature, to help us understand how we can be motivated to act in ways that benefit our communities without the provision of direct (and perhaps economic) incentives.

With surprising regularity, we come across instances of individuals who risk their well-being or reduce their own resources in order to help others. Examples range from grand personal gestures (such as Warren Buffett’s pledge to donate billions of dollars to the Gates Foundation) to the many people who engage in voluntary work. These seemingly ‘altruistic’ acts pose a significant problem for traditional rational-choice models of human behaviour, since such actions would not occur if human beings were self interested resource-maximisers. Notably some evidence is starting to suggest, as we have long suspected, that individuals are greatly influenced by their social cognition. Factors like social identity, empathy and social perception can therefore be important influences on people's behaviour.

So the reasons for seemingly altruistic behaviour are becoming clearer. We may engage in such behaviour for intangible social rewards of ‘positive regard’ or increased status. Others suggest that altruism may be based on the person’s desire to view themselves as a ‘good person’, rather than empathic concern for the well-being of others. The view that the RSA seems to espouse, based on evidence from evolutionary psychology and behavioural economics, is that we are reciprocal altruists. The 'reciprocal altruism' argument suggests that people may engage in behaviour that incurs a personal cost because they expect that, if they were to also find themselves in a position of need, they would receive similar help or cooperation from others in their group. The strength of reciprocal altruism is, however, limited by the number of people who consistently prioritise their own needs above collaboration. If just 5% of a population act as ‘egoists’, it can reduce overall cooperation among the population by about 40%.

Such is the strength of the norm of reciprocity that, when a favour is enacted (whether asked for or not), we will be more willing to comply with requests from the giver; even when it opposes our own, 'rational' interests. A common example can be seen when charities include a small ‘gift’ (such as a pen or personalised address labels) with their direct mailing. By giving us this token, they are engaging with the reciprocity norm, in an attempt to induce 'altruistic' behaviour in the form of donations. It is a tactic that works surprisingly well.

All of these approaches share an appreciation for the fact that we are essentially social creatures. There are already examples where such an understanding has been put into practice. In 2005 Camden Council initiated their ‘Exceptional People in Camden’ awards (repeated in 2006 and 2008) for people who have made a notable contribution to local life through their voluntary and community-focussed work. By recognising and publicising community-focused action, such programmes can help to reinforce community norms which value ‘altruistic’ behaviour and the people who engage in it. Furthermore, initiatives such as time banks, which allow individuals to reciprocally exchange services rather than money, have been introduced in some areas. Such schemes can be relatively cheap to set up, and may help to promote and formalise community norms of trust and reciprocity, thereby building social capital by helping to extend and strengthen social networks.

 Our decision-making processes clearly go beyond simple economic cost-benefit analyses. Instead, they include a strong concern for our place in society and our relations with other individuals. Understanding the ‘Social Brain’ is therefore important to the Connected Communities project, as knowing how to motivate the ‘engine parts’ of communities (i.e. individual members) to act in a pro-social way can help us to keep our communities running smoothly.

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