Marie-Hélène Budworth

Associate Professor of Human Resource Management, specializing in learning, development & motivation.

Marie-Hélène Budworth

Neuroscience meets social science

June 4th, 2014 · 6 Comments · Uncategorized


I have been reading Matthew D. Lieberman‘s book, Social: Why our brains are wired to connect.  It is incredibly interesting. Lieberman describes scientific studies that use brain imaging technology to observe the neural pathways in the brain that are active as individuals perform certain tasks.  This type of work gives us great insight into how our social selves connect to more fundamental biological needs.  Neuroscience can help us to answer questions such as – what is important to us? what do we find pleasurable? and what do we find painful?

One of the questions that Lieberman examines is what does one ‘get’ out of altruistic behaviour.  Social scientists have been asking this question for some time.  In that literature, there is a theory that describes altruistic behaviour as having a number of outcomes for the ‘giver.’  This includes (1) feeling good because one is morally correct, (2) improving one’s self-concept because one can view oneself as a giver, and (3) enjoying the response or gratitude received after one gives.  In other words, we are not exactly altruistic.  We don’t give blindly with nothing in return.  We give because it feels good and because it makes us feel good about ourselves.

In neuroscience, the findings are quite similar.  When an individual behaves in altruistic ways, the part of the brain centre that lights up is the centre associated with ‘reward.’  This affirms the idea that doing something for others provides us with significant personal reward.  Amazing.

I find this exciting because it shows that neuroscience and social science can work together to explain and confirm social phenomenon.  This is what we would call methodologically a multi-method approach.  A theory has been developed and we can use many different approaches to find supporting evidence for the theory.  We can observe individual behaviour and we can also observe brain function.  So cool.  Now where can I find an MRI machine for my next study?


6 Comments so far ↓

  • Filomena Armeni

    I think this type of research, helps to make a topic, like neuroscience, much more palatable and relatable to mass audiences. Let’s face it, neuroscience can sound intimidating. What I mean by that is that neuroscience (like many fields that have the word “science” in them) often seems reserved for individuals who are members of Mensa or spend their time researching in a lab. By applying neuroscience to fields of study that are relatively more understandable by people of average intelligence, like sociology, might result in two outcomes: 1) people more interested in neuroscience because they can relate it to everyday life; 2) they are less intimidated by neuroscience and, therefore, more likely to want to learn more about it.

  • Kathy Krzywucki

    Studies that explore the brain and how it works or reacts in different situations I find very interesting. It’s always exciting to hear about we can apply these studies into everyday lives.

  • Velda Warren

    Yes, this is exciting for social science, it’s fascinating to see how technology is being used in neuroscience. I see many possibilities for this multi-method approach. Think of the possibilities – neuroscience combined with psychiatry, brain injury and psychology. Imagine how much we can learn about mental illnesses through this type of research.

  • Chrissy

    My comments are about your previous post, finding meaning at the work when suffering loss.
    What happens when the loss of life happened at the workplace? Does this change our relationship with jobs, organizations and careers differently to losing someone not from work accidents? I believe it does for families and co- workers. Having worked in the heavy manufacturing and construction industry, accidents and fatality in the workplace is an unfortunate reality. Canadian health and safety standards are some of the highest in the world, and we are very fortunate that corporations take it seriously and people’s well being and safety is a number one priority. Safety training, wearing personal protective safety equipment, equipment safety compliance, imbedding a health and safety culture and saying no to dangerous practices are just some of the ways employers and employees ensure a safe place to work. Despite best practices, accidents happen. And fatalities occur. But when loss of life happens at the workplace my observations from co-workers, managers and c-suite executives is the enormous sense of loss and responsibility because each individual member of an organisation is collectively accountable to keep co-workers safe. Not withstanding an individuals corporate accountabilities a fatality can also leave one to reflect on their personal relationship and meaning with job, profession and the company they work for. To Shavone’s point, “the search for purpose in life is frequently explored, and especially during times of loss or travesty.” At the end of the day, a job is not worth dying for. How people react, cope and take away from the tragedy is wide and varied.

    I believe the loss of a significant family member due to workplace accidents have a different impact than losses for other reasons. A friend of mine and his wife recently embarked on a 3 year contract to upgrade a cattle farm in a very remote and rural place. It was an opportunity to get financially ahead they said. Three weeks into the job the wife has a workplace accident. Paramedic support was not able to reach her in time.
    It has been 3 months since the accident and he continues to struggle with the meaning and purpose in life and his relationship to work. My friend is having similar experiences to some of the family members who have lost significant others during my time working in heavy manufacturing and construction industry. One never thinks of the dangers at the workplace or that accidents can happen to them. When a fatality happens the remaining family members feel guilt, accountability and traumatic loss because it could have been prevented or person could have worked in a less dangerous role or industry.
    If the fatality results in a person to be the sole bread winner for the family, I’ve seen their relationship to work become rather paradoxical. On one hand the preventable death of a loved one at the workplace may leave you bitter about the construct of capitalism and how “work” in the scheme of what’s important in life is not significant . But yet as the single bread winner, one has to play by the rules, that is, work hard, be prepared to sacrifice time with family etc to keep job any perhaps be paid well.

  • Titi Ali

    This is a very interesting topic to me because I have found myself in situations where I’ve had to question the intentions of the giver.

    Could this be a disorder that makes people give just because it makes them feel good about themselves and not all about the act of giving?

    It will be interesting if Neuroscience and social science could also explain why some individuals feel guilty for feeling good after giving.

  • Shavone Lazarus

    The brain is a fascinating organ. Its full capability is yet to be understood. The marriage of neuroscience and social science, through technology, objectively explains human behaviour. The closer we get to an understanding of how functions of our brain work independently, and interdependently, the closer we are to understanding ourselves, our actions and ways to influence them.
    Will human kind ever know the brain’s full capacity? This new development proves it to be future’s certainty!