Friday, August 03, 2007

Social media CSR and the reptilian brain

This post is about the physiological (evolutionary) and psychological explanations for the success of social media and its relevance to PR and organisations.

Deep in our brain is the ventral pallidum. It is commonly called the 'reptilian' part of the brain.

Over our evolutionary history, the brain has evolved in animals layer by layer. Humans have complex (and big) brains and we carry the baggage of evolution deep in the layers of brain from our evolutionary ancestors. These inner parts of the brain provide most of the unconscious responses to stimulation that are part of our normal existence. We don't have to think about how to walk. We just walk.

But these deeply embedded responses also dictate how we evoke instinctive action to events, people and organisations. An interesting article in the New York Times covers a lot of this ground.

Our problem is that a lot of management thinking is founded on these, primitive areas of the brain. The ideas of Thomas Hobbs (1651 Levanthian ), modified by Freud (Civilisation and its Discontents) and Smith (Wealth of Nations) and provided with an economic application by Neumamn & Morgenstern (Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour), a re-working of Garret Harding's Tragedy of the Commons are no longer enough. We know so much more which is relevant to PR and especially to social media and CSR.

We already knew from the 1970's experiments that people cooperate at a much higher level when exposed to face-to-face communication. To explore this means reading George Williams (The Selfish Gene).

John Allman (Evolving Brains) at Caltech shows that, to survive, humans need both a big brain (oh... that means slow development through childhood to maturity) and an altruistic, co-operative and communication rich relationship with other people to support the long development through childhood to adulthood (family, community and long lasting social cohesion). To do this we have to be social animals. We cannot be selfish. Genetically, we have to cooperate for the survival of the species. Humans prosper and are more effective in groups.

This is why Social Media is so important to people and why co-operation online is so popular? It allows human beings to do what they are genetically programmed to do.

The richer the experience the greater the co-operation and the more productive and cohesive the group is. If you neglect a human, it fades - and the examples come from the terrible 'orphanages' in some countries even to this day (there are harrowing studies that I am not going into here).

Allman has shown that people who look after people live longer! Berkman and Syme have also shown that people with few social ties die younger. Does this mean blogs are good for you - its very probable. The richer and more inclusive the relationship - even an online relationship - is good for us. The 'sad' individuals with big online networks of 'friends' is not as silly (or sad) as many would make out.

This social part of our brain (pre-frontal cortex) is the most recent addition in the evolution of the human brain which adds cognitive sophistication including self awareness, awareness of others as people, long term planning and an ability to shift behaviour in the light of changing social contexts to create a human moral sense.

It has an immense impact and is important when PR people consider corporate values and value systems, their networks and interactions with publics and approaches to social media.

Harvard's Robert Putman's studies (among others) into the nature of richness in relationships show that Social Networks, social norms (values) trust, together making up social capital, is a major factor in economic development. Kawachi, Kennedy & Lochner (1977 - Long Live Community: social capital as public health) also show that low trust (in civic authorities) reduces average mortality rate and we see this in some nations to this day (Zimbabwe?) . It follows that trusting an organisation, for example a company, is good for people and loss of trust is bad for people.

This is where the PR practice of Corporate Social Responsibility, comes into the limelight. CSR cannot be used as a substitute for good governance. As soon as poor governance is exposed and trust is lost, the effect is not just loss of 'reputation' it is denial of social norms and community and the richer the prior experience, the greater loss which is a deeply hurtful thing to human psychology. It is probably an explanation for much anti-corporatism today.

Institutions have to be richly involved in social communities (not just employees, customers, vendors but wider communities too) and they have to be trusted to prosper.

Distinctions between the individual and others begins to fade as the identity of the crowd and the concept of self (which is also context driven) merges into one collective identity with a common set of symbols (values) shared with others, suggest Quarts & Sejnowski (Liars Lovers and Heroes) . By creating collective identities, humans can define groups more diverse than those based on kin, such as citizenship. These groups do include MySpace and Facebook groups and even blogging and other online communities. Some of these groups might be related to organisations but many do not. So people belong to a range of communities through which they can act on an organisation. A recent Wharton study is an example. It examined how these communities create an extensive 'word of mouth' antipathy to organisations.

Acording to Dawes Kragt and Orbell (1990 in 'Beyond Self Interest), "Ease in forming group identities could be of individual benefit. It is not the successful group that prevails, but the individuals who have a propensity to form such groups". Thus the people who are involved in groups online do so as both part of our, human, make up and are important to people's ability (and their belief in their ability) to succeed.

This would indicate that the closer to face to face social media gets (think of photo's and video) and the richness of the experience (a proxy for face to face) with associated trust and the ability to join or form groups is deeply important to the human condition. Online media is becoming much closer to face-to-face relationships. It is getting very rich, a subject I explored in this post last week.

One can begin to see that as, depending on experience of organisations and the social context people find themselves in, the interaction between organisations and individuals and their social groups is now touching on hugely powerful evolutionary and psychological human motives.

The significance of social media from an evolutionary and psychological viewpoint is beginning to emerge and for PR is is much, much bigger than at first thought.

Our responsibility to ensure PR takes corporate social responsibility very seriously (not just a teddy bear given to the local fete - or even millions given to the poor in Africa) because online, the pervasiveness of social media is storing up a heap of trouble for those involved in poor governance. At which point - watch out for the reptilian part of the brain to kick in!

Photo: Forestry insights