Can Social Comparison Make Our Brains Bigger? - Dispatch Weekly

August 12, 2016 - Reading time: 4 minutes

Researchers from Cardiff University have found that comparing ourselves to others is not necessarily bad; in fact humans have evolved a disproportionately large brain when “sizing each other up in large cooperative social groups.

The study published in Scientific Reports, suggests that judging a person’s relative standing and whether to cooperate with them has made the brain bigger over the last 2 million years.

Professor Robin Dunbar, from the University of Oxford (@OxNeuro) and Leading evolutionary psychologist added that evolution favors those that help others who are as successful as themselves.

Evolution Of Social Comparison And Success

Professor Roger Whitaker (@profmobisoc), lead author, from Cardiff University, said:

“Our results suggest that the evolution of cooperation, which is key to a prosperous society, is intrinsically linked to the idea of social comparison—constantly sizing each up and making decisions as to whether we want to help them or not.”

“We’ve shown that over time, evolution favors strategies to help those who are at least as successful as themselves.”

The Research and Computer Modelling

By using hundreds of thousands of simulations to examine decision making strategies the researchers aimed to understand why certain patterns of human behavior established over time.

Two simulated players were selected at random from the population before the first player made a decision whether they wanted to donate to the other player basing their decision on how they judged their reputation.

If the player chose to donate there was a cost and in turn the receiver was given a benefit. The player’s reputations were updated before another game commenced.

The research suggests that our human survival has depended on making judgments by helping others. By constantly assessing individuals, this has caused the brain to grow over many generations.

Humans, Big Brains and Large Cerebral Cortexes

Humans have bigger brains compared to other species such as chimpanzees. We also have the larger cerebral cortexes, relative to our brains, than all other mammals

The cerebral cortex is where functions such as thinking, communication and memory take place.

However, the assumption that a bigger brain equates to a higher intelligence is not accurate according to Neurosciences Institute, Stanford University, 2014:

“Correlational studies have only established a weak to moderate linear relationship between brain size and intelligence, which is enough fuel to ensure that the brain size and intelligence hypothesis doesn’t burn out, but does little to explain the true basis of human cognitive capacity.”

Engineering, Autonomous Machines and Interactions

The research concludes that the findings could have a significant impact on engineering using intelligently automated machines which involve one off interactions (“short algorithms called heuristics”) when deciding how generous to be towards one another.

This could also influence modern autonomous technologies such as, “distributed wireless networks or driverless cars” that “need to self manage their behavior but at the same time co-operate with others in their environment.”

Did you know?

According to Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History, from 800,000-200,000 years ago, the human brain evolved rapidly during climate change.

As the environment changed, humans needed to develop bigger brains to deal with their unpredictable surroundings, helping them survive.

DW Staff

David Lintott is the Editor-in-Chief, leading our team of talented freelance journalists. He specializes in covering culture, sport, and society. Originally from the decaying seaside town of Eastbourne, he attributes his insightful world-weariness to his roots in this unique setting.