Getting humans to work together

How did it make you feel when one of your friends got a higher grade on a test you wanted you wanted to do well on? Do you have something you love to do, perhaps even love so much that you wish it could be your career, but you aren’t good enough at it to do so? How does it make you feel when someone with natural talent is able to make it their life’s work?

It would be totally normal if your answer was: jealous. Jealousy, insecurity, self-doubt, shame and other forms of psychological suffering are the result of our evolution. Our brains specialized and we gained the ability to develop diverse talents. But as we see talents in others that we don’t have ourselves, others become more strange, less familiar, and more foreign.

We have no choice but to rely on others for our knowledge but, at the same time, we are compelled to learn, to master a skill, and to seek status and recognition for our talents. Resolving the tension between sociability and individuality requires us finding a way to dissipate conflict. How did humans evolve to share knowledge, goals, and desires whilst remaining free agents of their own lives? What enables strangers to cohere?

Rituals, according to Peter Sterling, author of What Is Health, are how humans dissipate psychological tensions and preserve social cohesion. Rituals—stories, art, sex, funerals— elicit intense emotions and these relieve intrapsychic and interpersonal tensions. Rituals arise rapidly whenever a small group detaches from the main. For rituals to stick, for strangers to cohere, they need to be satisfying. Hence, rituals are linked to our learning and reward systems.

Human learning is social. There is an emerging body of thought that human intelligence involves looping cause and effect reasoning among multiple brains. The field of collective neuroscience posits that sociability is a requirement for intelligence. Humans, as well as other animals, appear to have neurons that are responsible for tracking the complex behavior of friends. Intelligence could well be more integrated and more dependent on multiple brains working together than we realize.

Great Human Strength: We can balance our extreme sociability and extreme individualism with behaviors, experiences, and creative practices such as art and music that allow us to share emotions in the same way we share knowledge. These practices help us dissipate tensions and work together.

Great Human Weakness: Without ways to help strangers cohere, others are foreign and the result is interpersonal conflict.

Machine Opportunity: Designs that help us appreciate the diversity of humanity, surface individual’s strengths and support communal ritual.

Machine Threat: Designs that divide us and destroy our ability to value cognitive diversity.