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Aug 2016

Riding the Social Wave Pt 2: The implications for humans' social nature

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Shaping the future of learning


In a previous post I looked at the social wave as a way of leveraging human’s social nature to promote learning content (a.k.a. social marketing) based on self-regulation theories. In this post I will extend ideas of our social nature and their implications for social regulation within organisations. 

How our brain is activated by social participation 

Humans are social animals and have evolved a series of mechanisms that allow us to participate in complex social interactions and interpret social signals (Frith & Frith, 2010). In a recent relevant neurological study (Tylén, Philipsen, Roepstorff & Fusaroli, 2016) participants were instructed to use lego bricks to build a representation of value concepts such as ‘responsibility’, ‘collaboration’, ‘knowledge’, ‘justice’, ‘safety’ and ‘tolerance’. There were two sets of trials: (1) individual - where participants created these on their own; and (2) collective - where participants worked freely in small groups. Photos were then taken of the lego objects and presented to individuals during a fMRI brain scanning session with participants asked to rate either the fragility of the object (physical property) or how well the concept was portrayed (meaning property).

A summary of the findings were:

  • When considering the physical properties of objects the areas of the brain activated have been related to perception of objects and with object recognition and categorisation.
  • When considering the symbolic meaning of objects the areas activated are generally found in studies of social cognition and interaction, and associated with mentalizing, agency, and ascription of intentionality.
  • When viewing objects that had been created by that individual activations occurred in the social cognitive regions and in areas of autobiographical memory and agency, rather than semantic meaning suggesting that the meaning was already internalised.
  • When comparison was made of collaborative work against individual or other models there seemed to be an interesting activation of the area associated with empathy and social emotions.

When thinking about social learning and social cognition understanding how our brain is activated by social participation has some important implications for how we approach learning. In particular, the latter two findings respectively suggest reduced cognitive load to recall meaning when there is a social history with the concept; and a sense of relatedness when this was created collectively. So what might this mean for your learning and development.

Performance Management and Mentoring (co-regulation)

Performance management is a co-regulated activity where a manager (or appraiser) and their direct report create a shared concept. The findings above suggest that when this is a truly collaborative experience in which the employee can openly build their own internalised meaning then they will develop a sense of connection and experience a reduced cognitive load to recall and apply this in daily practice. When implementing appraisals in Totara, for example, this questions how top-down or one-size-fits-all appraisal processes and goal setting would deliver this. The potential for learning technologies here is to offer personalisation and collaboration with active discussion, though this is often not what we see. Furthermore, while organisations cannot readily include fMRI scans in their performance management process (until there’s an app for that), the study by Tylén et al finds that the empathy triggers in the brain can be predicted by the relatedness scale of self-determination theory (Ryan, 1982; Deci & Ryan, 1990). Motivational items such as relatedness could be a valuable addition to the types of information captured during performance management workflows and again technologies make this easier to capture and analyse.

Building successful teams (socially-shared regulation)

A successful team relies on a series of social artefacts such as processes, systems, and norms that form part of socially-shared regulatory processes. Therefore, knowing that there are performance and well-being benefits from engaged employees (Halbesleben, 2010), it may be important to consider recent research arguing that team engagement is an emergent property not found in the individuals alone (Costs, Passos, & Bakker, 2014). The idea presented in this article is that processes imposed on a team will be experienced with different cognitive loads to those developed by the team.

What next?

If you’re struggling to boost engagement with learning pathways, team processes, or appraisals it may be helpful to consider whether these allow the sense of connection that our social brains require.



Shaping the future of learning

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