Did you know that the only difference between a group of males who are promiscuous and abandon their female partners at pregnancy; and males who are monogamous and well behaving husbands who share in the raising of kids, is only a single Neurotransmitter receptor?

I should also note that for what we learned from Neuroscience Professor Michael Hausser in the Neuroscience of Social Progress Panel, this only relates to the Prairie Vole vs Montane Vole, both small mammals similar to field mice. I should also apologize to anyone who was hoping it applied to human males as well.

Neuroscience’s Role in Behaviour Change

When I read that there was a session at the SWF on neuroscience, I couldn’t help but be curious as to what the connection was going to be to social entrepreneurship.  Very quickly, the link became evident.

“90% of people in the UK pay their taxes correctly and on time”. Does that strike you as being extremely high? That’s because it is. It’s not true. But by putting this one line on tax forms, the UK government was able to increase the rate of timely tax submissions by 15%, earning an additional £160M in savings. This made me think that my wife should start telling me “95% of top rated fathers happily change every baby diaper they are around for”.

Conformation Bias

This was one of many examples that Tali Sharot, Director of the Affective Brain Lab out of University College London, explained how most humans suffer from what is called a conformity bias. We inherently do what others are doing, even if it isn’t rational.

The famous Asch experiment in 1951 showed a group of people lines of length 3cm, 5cm and 7cm. The group was then shown a comparison line that was obviously 5cm long and asked what the length of the line was. The first 5 people, who were planted by the experiment, all said the line was 3cm.  The last person, the test subject, 80% of the time also said it was 3cm long.

This leads to the question of whether we conform consciously because we just want to fit in, or do we actually convince ourselves that we are wrong and others are correct.  Turns out it breaks down to about a 50/50 split. Tali’s research on this topic is using fMRI technology to map brain activity. She illustrated that when humans are put in these types of “conformity” situations, we use both a rational part of our brain, as well as an emotional component.

Neuroscience in Conflict Resolution

The panel also tackled how to apply neuroscience to helping solve problems related to conflict resolution. Maurice Biriotti, CEO of SHM, a firm that helps resolve conflict within commercial and social organizations, first spoke. He used the story of Achilles in the Ulysses and his irrational wrath when faced with conflict to show how 5 humans can suffer from 5 phenomena that cause us to act irrationally. Hate, indignation, emotional bias, inequality and social influence. Joy Hirsch, Professor of Neuroscience, Columbia University then showed us how these phenomena are studied using fMRI technology.

Finally, Professor Michael Hausser treated the audience to some neuroscience “Eye Candy”. He has been using color florescent proteins and light to monitor and manipulate activity in the brain. The rainbow colored brain images were stunning and help them study what I think he called the 3 fundamental human behaviour, or the 3 F’s, fighting, feeding and mating (wink wink).

I left thirsty to continue with deeper discussion around how to apply these findings to behavior change in the social entrepreneurship field.  Given the amount of active conversation following the session, it seems likely they are already happening. I overheard delegates intensely discussing how to alter the male humans brain receptors to more mimic that of the Priaire Vole.