Why being social is so important to us

We are immensely social beings: we enjoy having friends and sharing knowledge or experiences with them, and most people try to connect with other people first chance they get. It’s not really surprising that social media have increased in popularity as much as they have, only further illustrating our desire to see and be seen, to talk to and be talked to. Why are we so drawn to social activities, though? Is there more to this desire to be part of a collective? The answer is ‘yes, there is’, and I’ll briefly explain why.

In 2003, a study conducted by researchers in the lab of neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman set out to investigate the brain’s response to social rejection1. They found, surprisingly, that the brains of their participants responded very similarly as the way brains respond when a person is in physical pain. The researchers concluded that the human brain processes social discomfort and hurt the same way it does physical pain, even though there is no material cause. Surprising? Absolutely, especially given the fact that another study has found that painkillers affect this ‘social pain’ the same way they do ‘real’, physical pain2. But what is it about social pain that is so crucial for it to be equated to actual physical pain by our brains?

Let’s wind back, all the way to when our lives began: birth. Suffice to say that not all animals are born equally self-sufficient. Baby foals are up and running within hours of their arrival to this world, while human babies are, well… helpless. The first two months of life find human babies unable to lift their own heads without help from others, let alone stand and walk around. The only reason any of us has survived infancy is simply because we all have had a caregiver who felt such a strong connection to us that they were willing to take care of us and feed us over many years, and because they felt pain when being separated from their child, same as a baby cries and experiences pain when being separated from their caregiver. 

Similarly, eons ago our ancestors discovered that tackling problems threatening their survival was best done collectively. Sharing knowledge, food, tools and other resources helped them hunt animals, beat famine and secure the survival not only of their lives, but their genes as well. Simply put, humans depend on other humans for survival, whether it be within their own lifetime or as a species.

Further illustrating the importance of a social network is the fact that humans, over the many thousands of years of living and surviving in groups, have developed seemingly dedicated brain regions, focused on ‘social thinking’. These important skills include empathy and being able to imagine how other people are feeling in a given situation, but also predict their behaviours based on how we would behave ourselves and how we have seen others behave in certain situations. All of these dedicated skills help us work, play, and share with other people, and are so much ingrained in our functioning that a specific neural network has developed to enable us be better social beings.

Another psycho-biological theory called the ‘social baseline theory’3 states that the human brain is made to function in social contexts and that, when social support is lacking, the brain is less able to handle everyday stressors. Instead, at a ‘social baseline’ (the situation in which people perceive they can expect help from others if they find themselves in a pickle), the brain performs best, and draws strength and resilience from this invisible (and maybe even imagined!) safety net, making obstacles easier to overcome in the first place.

To conclude, I hope I have been able to illustrate shortly how important being kind to one another and helping one another actually is; remember that when rejecting someone or excluding them, you most likely cause them to experience the same kind of pain if you were to harm them physically. We all need each other, and being there for one another will make the lives of everyone involved a lot easier.

Further reading

  1. Eisenberger, N.I., Lieberman, M.D., Williams, K.D. (2003). Does rejection hurt: An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science. 302:290–2.
  2. DeWall, C.N., MacDonald, G., Webster, G.D., Masten, C.L., Baumeister, R.F., Powell, C., Combs, D., Schurtz, D.R., Stillman, T.F., Tice, D.M., Eisenberger, N.I. (2010). Acetaminophen reduces social pain: Behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological Science. 21:931–7.
  3. Beckes, L. and Coan, J.A. (2011). Social baseline theory: The role of social proximity in emotion and economy of action. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 5: 976-988.

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