Recent trends show that people increasingly value material goods over relationships—but neuroscience and evolution say this goes against our nature.
Matthew Lieberman, a distinguished social psychologist and neuroscientist, basically won the lottery. This past summer, he was offered three million dollars for an academic position—one million in raw income and two to do lab research. That’s a king’s ransom for a psychology professor. On average, psychology professors make less than six figures and rely on a patchwork of modest grants to sustain their research. All Lieberman had to do was spend four months this year and next year in Moscow, a nice enough city, doing some research—which he would have done anyway at home at UCLA.
But there was a catch. He would have to be away from his wife Naomi and seven-year-old son Ian for those eight months. They could not join him in Moscow. He had a basic trade-off problem, one that kept him up for many nights: Should I take the money and give up those eight months with my family or should I stay home and give up the money and research opportunities? In one form or another, we've all faced this dilemma, if on a more modest scale. Do you work late tonight or join your family for dinner? Do you go to the conference or to your friend’s wedding? Do you prioritize your career or your relationships?
The strongest predictor of a species’ brain size is the size of its social group. We have big brains in order to socialize.
Lieberman’s new book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect hits the shelves this month. It’s a book about relationships and why relationships are a central—though increasingly absent—part of a flourishing life. Lieberman draws on psychology and neuroscience research to confirm what Aristotle asserted long ago in his Politics: “Man is by nature a social animal … Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”