The key points from the learning models I described from my research is that firstly, when knowledge is applied well it can make our interpretations of situations more accurate and interpersonal exchanges more positive … and secondly, that the knowledge itself can trigger an ongoing learning process of self-observation and self-direction.
In a series of posts I wanted to focus on some aspects of social brain research, which might help a person working in a community achieve more positive results.
What is social cognition?
Today I am going to introduce social cognition, a term used in a few different ways. The social cognition I am referring to here is the ability to understand another person’s mental states and thought processes. From the age of 5 children start to understand that other people may think differently from them… this natural phenomena is labelled Theory of Mind. This whole area of study has become very intricate and over recent years a number of extremely detailed and interconnected disciplines have emerged, many resulting from the application of new research from neuroscience. An example of this is 'social neuroscience' which is a relatively new field first developed by John Cacioppo at Chicago University.
Although I am personally fascinated with the academic research, what I am most interested in is the key pieces of knowledge that a regular person might find helpful in managing themselves and navigating interpersonal relationships. In the Social Brain Lab we are intent on focusing on how key pieces of knowledge might be helpful in community/social settings.
The community scenario
The scenario you could imagine is that you are regular person who is interested in making your community a nicer place to live. You know that this will require a great deal of collaboration and co-operation, with groups of people working together to make positive things happen. Your motivation for getting involved in such community building activity is that you would like to see divisions between age or culture bridged… and believe that a genuine opportunity now exists among residents to make and shape their social and physical environment of the neighbourhood. You are realistic however, and understand that this can be difficult. New community activity often challenges existing social and professional structures and hierarchies and even the most positive activities can create controversy – in turn possibly leading to difficult conversations.
In these complex situations you want to be able to communicate well. You want people to understand what you are saying in substance, but also clearly understand your intentions and motivations. You also want to be able to understand other people well, not misinterpreting what people say, or making negative assumptions about their intentions. As well as the diplomattic communication burdens you recognise that communicating ideas, stimulating ideas in other people and helping groups work together productively is very important in achieving your aims.
In his important the new book Together, sociolist Richard Sennett is very persuasive in his argument that co-operation requires skill as well as goodwill - particularly when trying to work with people who aren't of the same mindset or background as ourselves - the type of co-operation that puts a much higher burdern on social cognition. You can listen to his recent RSA talk here.
Understanding what is going on in your own head is difficult. Monitoring a conversation in a live situation to ensure that what you say is an accurate reflection of what you mean, is even more difficult. Then when you add ‘social cognition’ - trying to understanding what is happening in the other person’s head as they process what you are saying… is very challenging indeed … but not impossible.
Communicating well in every single situation we find ourselves in is too much to ask of any undividual in my opinion, there are simply too many stresses in daily life to demand that degree of concentration of ourselves. But we can learn to communicate well regularly with some practice, improving our social cognition abilities over time, but not without understanding how our minds work - particularly many minds together.
Applying social cognition to workshop activities
We use this understanding of social cognition thinking and Theory of Mind in some of the activities we have designed for workshops already. We call them ‘talking tools’, but basically they are activities to help a group of individuals surface and share their mindsets. We used these activities in public workshops with Reading Council, and are about to test a similar new health related activity later this month. Our experience is that these tools perform an interesting function – people are genuinely surprised to discover that people think differently from them, that they have differing attitudes to the role of the council vs the potential role of local residents., and the way the conversation is structured through the activity leads people to be intrigued to find these differences.
What to learn more?
There are two ways you can explore social cognition in more detail if this topic interests you.
Firstly, you can start to delve into the academic research. A good place to start would be to listen to some of the free lectures from Berkeley that you can get from iTunes U – I would recommend as a good starting point lectures 19, 20 and 21 from this series of lectures by John Kihlstrom.
High level communications are incredibly valuable. They can be learned, with knowledge and practice, but the type of good communication that I am promoting here is not the same as masterful manipulation - smooth talking attempts are often designed to get people to do what others want them to do - and thankfully they regularly and predictably get exposed for what they are.
In my experience, important collaborative relationships, creating genuine mutual understanding and dialogue, can only be developed with completely ruthless self-honestly. We need to challenge ourselves constantly to avoid getting stuck in our own group mindsets, defensive, inaccurate or unhelpful narratives. Genuine dialogue also requires generosity of thought - ingredients for understanding the frames and perspectives of other people.
Which leads me neatly onto the next post on the Social Brain Lab .... where I will talk about trust building.