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Speed Summary – Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

Pain Killers for a Broken Heart

Want to know how to make social media pay? The answer lies in the surprising insight that pain killers appear to work for broken hearts as well as broken bones.

In Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect  UCLA psychologist and neuroscientist Prof. Matthew Lieberman provides compelling evidence that our minds have evolved a powerful psychological module that works on a simple ‘social pleasure/pain principle‘ – social bonding stimulates the pleasure circuits of the brain, whilst social rejection and isolation leads to pain that is neurologically identical to physical pain. One upshot of this neurological similarity is that pain killers can be effective for social pain as well as well as physical pain; an insight that is backed up by evidence.

But what does the social pleasure/pain principle mean for marketers? First, as pleasure-seeking pain-avoiding creatures, it follows that consumers will be instinctively drawn to products and services that either offer social bonding opportunities, or help them avoid social rejection or isolation. Second, because empathy promotes social bonding, products and services that enhance empathy – our capacity to see and feel what others are feeling (“mindread” each other in Lieberman’s terms ) – will have a natural appeal. Third, and relatedly, we are drawn to products and services that help us live more harmoniously with each other.  Connecting, Mindreading (Empathising) and Harmonizing are  core social value propositions.

Beyond fMRI

Whilst much of the book is concerned with laying out neurological evidence for the social pleasure/pain principle through numerous fMRI scan experiments, the most interesting sections for marketers are when Lieberman applies his insights. Taking personal wellbeing, leadership and education as examples, Lieberman shows how a social mindset can help you create a socially irresistible value proposition.

Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness, Kindness Does

Health and happiness are goals we all strive for, but whilst money can – to a degree – buy health, it can’t seem to buy us happiness. This is partly because happiness is relative and a temporary affective state – we’re not so much “happy” as “happier” than before (or sadder). This means that money can buy us but a fleeting and temporary blip of happiness. And like a drug that we develop tolerance for, the kind of happiness that can be bought requires ever bigger and more expensive hits just for us to feel okay.

Lieberman proposes that we change tack, and look instead to derive happiness from our social brains. How? Simple says Lieberman, we just need to be more ‘social’, specifically be more kind to each other and share more experiences with each other. Why? Because our minds are wired to get a buzz out of sharing and helping each other; sharing and kindness are crack-cocaine for our social brains. For example, simply holding someone’s hand reduces their experience of pain; even holding a picture of a loved one can reduce pain.  Citing research that shows that volunteering just once a week has the same effect on personal wellbeing as a doubling of salary, Lieberman suggests that active kindness to others is the secret of enduring happiness. The ‘So What?’ for marketing is clear – develop value propositions and brand promises that help people be more kind to each other.

The Brand SCARF

The ability to motivate people is a key part of effective leadership, but what motivates people? Lieberman suggests that it isn’t money; paying for performance turns out to be a poor motivator. Drawing on the motivational business psychology of David Rock, Lieberman presents the SCARF model of  motivation – people are intrinsically motivated by five fundamental factors – Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness – and three of these five factors (Status, Relatedness and Fairness) are social in nature. For example, reviewing research that shows that people will trade a 20% salary bonus for enhanced status (recognition) within an organisation, Lieberman suggests that effective leaders not only have strong interpersonal skills, they look to social motivators to lead their organisations. Once more, marketing takeouts are clear; how can we as marketers develop compelling brand promises built around the social SCARF?

Socially Encoded Brands

Much of what we learn is with and through others. But if ‘social learning’ – learning with and through others – is such an effective form of learning, why is school learning almost exclusively personal work completed alone? Lieberman suggests that to improve education, we need to make schools more social, more adapted to the social mind. How? First, schools need to do more make their establishments socially pleasurable, not painful – by fostering a sense of connectedness and belonging among students, whilst tackling the key sources of social pain; isolation and bullying. Second, schools need to teach with social minds in mind; our minds encode information socially – which means that we learn things better if they about people and relationships rather than about abstract facts. For example, people perform better in memory tests about a news article if instead of trying to memorise the article, they try to form an overall impression of the person in the news story. Just as we have a knack for remembering lyrics of songs we’ve not heard in years, the facts of a story come back to us naturally when we think about the person in the story. Finally, schools need to promote learning together, rather than learning alone.  Once more, the marketing implications are clear, the ‘social encoding advantage‘ means that brands should strive to speak the language of people, not attributes, features and benefits.


If you’ve read the oft’ cited quote attributed to Brian Solis that ‘social media is more about sociology and psychology than technology, then Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, explains how so. As such, if there’s one book worth reading on social media and marketing right now, we’d say it’s this one. For marketers, Lieberman’s book is full of useful creative stimulus and strategic guidance for how to use the social pleasure/pain principle to build brands that will appeal to our social minds by helping people ‘connect‘, ‘mindread‘ and ‘harmonize‘.

Whilst we’re cautious about the use of fMRI scan data in marketing (it can invite ‘greedy reductionism‘ and reduce psychology to neurology), we agree wholeheartedly with strategic implication of ‘Social‘ – the value of having social brand vision based on the Golden Rule – helping people help people the way they’d like to be helped. And by bringing together latest essential insights from research into social cognition, from “socially-encoding” information to make it more memorable to the social brand SCARF (offering Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness), Lieberman’s book does more than any other to outline the future of social brands.


Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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1 comment
  • Woah! What a phrase to say: Pain Killers for a Broken Heart. It is good to know about the concept of social pain and pleasure principle through your article. I would also make it the effort to apply the SCARF model of motivation.

Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.