The Online Brain by Daniel Goleman

Nature designed the social brain for face-to-face interactions – not the online world. So how do social brains interact when we’re sitting looking at a video monitor instead of directly at another person? We’ve had a major clue about the problems with this interface ever since the beginning of the Internet, when it was just scientists emailing on what was called the Arpanet. This clue is flaming. Flaming happens when someone is a little upset – or very upset – and with their amygdala in firm control, furiously types out a message and hits “send” before thinking about it – and that hijack hits the other person in their inbox. Now the more technical term for flaming is “cyber-disinhibition,” because we realize that the disconnect between the social brain and the video monitor releases the amygdala from the usual management by the more reasonable prefrontal areas.

The neural dynamic behind flaming is that the social brain has no feedback loop online: unless you are in a live, face-to-face teleconference, the social circuitry has no input. It doesn’t know how the other person is reacting so it can’t guide our response – do this, don’t do that – as it does automatically and instantly in face-to-face interactions. Instead of acting as a social radar, the social brain says nothing – and that unleashes the amygdala to flame if we’re having a hijack.

Even a phone call gives these circuits ample emotional cues from tone of voice to understand the emotional nuance of what you say. But email, for instance, lacks all these inputs.

I was talking recently to a consultant in Europe who had been called in by two tech companies who had a working alliance to jointly develop a new product line. There were two sets of engineers, each in their own building in different parts of town. They didn’t get together, they just emailed. And it had degenerated into flame wars. The project was going nowhere. So what did the consultant do? He got the two groups together offsite for two days, just to get to know each other person-to-person.

One reason why this personal connection matters so much for online communication has to do with the social brain/video monitor interface. When we’re at our keyboard and we think a message is positive, and we hit ‘send’, what we don’t realize at the neural level is that all the nonverbal cues – facial expression, tone of voice, gesture and so on – stay with us. There’s a negativity bias to email: when the sender thinks an email was positive, the receiver tends to see it as neutral. When the sender thinks it’s neutral, the receiver tends to interpret it as somewhat negative. The big exception is when you know the person well; that bond overcomes the negativity bias.

Clay Shirky, who studies social networks and the web at New York University, was telling me about an example of a global bank security team that had to operate 24 hours a day. He said in order for them to operate well, it was critical that they use what he calls a banyan tree model, where key members of each group got together and met key members of every other group, so that in an emergency they can contact each other and get a clear sense of how to evaluate the message each group was sending. If someone in the receiving group knows that person well, or has a contact there whom he can ask about the person who sent the message, then the receiving group can better gauge how much to rely on it.

One enormous upside of the web, of course, is what you might call “brain 2.0.” As Shirky points out, the potential for social networking to multiply our intellectual capital is enormous. It’s a sort of super-brain, the extended brain on the web.

The term “group IQ” refers to the sum total of the best talents of each person on a team, or in a group, contributed at full force. It turns out that one factor that makes the actual group IQ less than its potential is lack of interpersonal harmony in the group. Vanessa Druskat at the University of New Hampshire has studied what she calls “group EQ” – things like being able to surface and resolve conflicts among the group, high levels of trust and mutual understanding. Her research shows that groups with the highest collective emotional intelligence outperform the others.

When you apply that to groups working together online, one core operating principle is that the more channels that come into the social brain, the more easily attuned you can be. So if you video-conference, you have visual, body and voice cues. Even if it’s a conference call, the voice is extraordinarily rich in emotional cues. In any case, if you’re working together just through text, it’s best when you know the other person well, or at least have some sense of them in order to have a context for reading their messages, so you can overcome the negativity bias. And best of all is leaving your office or cubicle and getting together to talk with the person.

Note: To listen to my conversation with Clay Shirky about developing socially intelligent online skills, visit:


Source: Daniel Goleman’s Linkedin group.


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