The innocent child stretches out her tiny hand to a stranger—to share a toy, a cookie, a flower (a young orangutan might well do the same). Then the child begins to grow up. She starts to learn that, when lending a hand, one will be offered in return. Or not. The child quickly learns to manipulate, persuade, rationalize—and cooperate. Although chimpanzees learn these social tactics as well, human babies have a unique opportunity: They have years to cultivate their behavior in relative safety since they remain dependent so much longer than any other species.
Almost all living creatures are self-serving almost all the time—including humans. We hear, read, see and remember whatever benefits us. We practice reciprocal altruism when that works. Or tit for tat when that works. We are constantly juggling our actions and our emotions, deluding ourselves into thinking we are kinder, more pure and selfless in our motives than we really are, struggling with conflicting values. But it comes down to (like all other sentient creatures, including bees) survival. That’s reality. We are driven by two basic and essential drives—to endure and procreate.1
Honeybees live in a hive of 70,000 (at the peak of the season) with each bee fulfilling a very defined role. The hive is almost all girls—only a few boys (drones) bred by the girls (worker bees) to mate just once with the queen. That’s it: They die in the act. Any drones that are still around in the autumn are kicked out before the hive winters over. There can only be one queen in the hive and her sole role is to populate the hive with brood. And it’s the responsibility of the entire hive to make sure the queen survives and to replace her when she is no longer able to do her job. When the new queen hatches she must kill any other queens in the making. Undertaker bees embalm hive invaders and tidy up bee corpses. Contrary to popular belief, a honeybee will not sting you unless it feels threatened because it will die and it needs to survive for the sake of the hive. Hives in all these ways provide us with the quintessential model of objective, structured cooperation.
But, unlike the bees and all other species, we can see beyond our “hives.” We believe in free will—the idea that we can imagine, plan and create a future for ourselves, that we control our own destiny. Whether this is true or not is open to much debate. Regardless, just like the bees, each of us has a role to play because we rely on community and cooperation to survive. Few of us thrive going solo.
A healthy human hive has to have dramatically fewer than 70,000 inhabitants to cultivate meaningful cooperation. True unity is simply not possible with really large numbers. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar says men can hold roughly 150 effective, developed relationships in their brains (the number is some-what higher for women).2 Language, Dunbar theorizes, allows for gossip and other forms of social grooming to help create, interweave and bolster human relationships, but our cortex limits the number we can cultivate. This would be true of Chinese workers, American graphic designers or Congolese mountain gorillas. The Guarani, an indigenous Brazilian people, rise each morning before dawn to sit in a circle, share tea and their previous night's dreams. In a daily ritual, they tell creation stories in a circle, as do parents to help their children settle down to sleep and say goodnight to the day. The Guarani live in tribes of about 150.
IN SYNC, IN THE FLOWWe are headed for ten billion humans on this planet before too long (from less than one billion at the start of the nineteenth century). How will we cope? The larger the population, the more stressed we become as individuals: And yet our drive to network has ratcheted up our connections dramatically. The honorific “friend” has, in the process, been dumbed down.
Quakers, named the Religious Society of Friends when it was founded in the seventeenth century, are still well known for their one-room Meeting Houses and facing benches; these are hives where cooperation and trust can thrive among Friends, as they are commonly called. Since it is essential to encourage fellowship and unity within Quaker communities, Meetings encourage members to split off and create new Meetings if attendance gets too large, roughly at Dunbar’s number. Hutterites, like Quakers, are known for their pacifism and cooperation, but unlike Quakers, Hutterian societies are somewhat cloistered, living and working in colonies at the size that supports Dunbar’s theory. Similarly some companies are led by Dunbar’s number limiting the size of departments, work spaces and even parking lots to encourage cooperation and cross-pollination. In his wisdom, Steve Jobs designed Pixar’s campus in Emeryville, California, so that everyone would run into everyone in the atrium, the common space. Cross-pollination happens when you least expect it.
When you spend eight to ten hours a day in your work hive, you pay significant attention to professional relationships, developing interpersonal dynamics, shorthand communications and nonverbal cues with your co-workers. You develop trust by understanding and respecting each other’s strong points, failings, quirks and sensitive spots. That’s the most efficient and productive way to work. Dance troupes, soccer teams, gospel choirs and Navy Seals all rely on camaraderie to create the flow. Any good team works toward a goal greater than the sum of the individuals involved. Group synchronicity creates a high unlike any other.
A herd of deer grazes in a field. They need to find a good water source soon. One by one their heads turn. When over half the herd has pointed in a certain direction, they will instinctively migrate toward the democratically agreed upon watering hole.3 Most species that swarm, flock or herd make similar group decisions, spontaneously, without language, working in unison often with split-second timing. In humans, synchronicity comes with the trust that’s developed by being together in close proximity, by developing relationships and complementary or mutual goals.
HEARTBEATS AND BEAR HUGSNeuro-economist Paul Zak, AKA Doctor Love, calls oxytocin the “moral molecule” which, when created by your body, enters your brain and bloodstream, increasing calmness, empathy, greater tolerance and trust.4 Zak prescribes eight hugs a day, each of which releases oxytocin—makes you feel happier, which improves your relationships and ultimately makes your world a more peaceful place. This works for aboriginals in remote New Guinea, web designers in Brooklyn and Bonobos in the Cincinnati Zoo. In fact, Bonobos, among the apes that are closest to humans, spend a great deal of time hugging and having sex of all manner and description. They are indeed the happiest, most peaceful of all primates.
Were you aware of the warm fuzzy feeling that overcame you while reading the Heartbeats and bear hugs subhead above? Think of puppy dog tails wagging, a tropical beach at sunset, waves lapping at the shore, babies smiling. Did your breathing and heart rhythm calm? Did you have a pleasant sensation in your upper chest and feel happier, more serene, oh, about three to five seconds later? Did your thought patterns become more positive? OK, now think of babies being slaughtered, tsunamis crashing onto buildings, causing mass destruction and your neighbor’s dog howling in pain. Is your breathing and heart rhythm racing? Do you feel flushed, fearful and stressed? Did your thought patterns go dark and negative? An electro-magnetic field radiates from your core that is either in balance (in sync) or stimulated (out of sync). If you are out of sync, you are not balanced in your own body much less with others. When we say a person is polarizing or toxic, is this what we mean? Group meditations, classrooms and concerts are places where the synchronicity of those present is essential to the success of the experience. When synchronicity is sensed by those in a silent Quaker Meeting, it is called a “gathered” meeting. Harmony is achieved.
THE INEVITABILITY OF FACEBOOKBuffalo stampede, fish school and bees swarm. Caged animals in a zoo will hug in family clusters and screech in alarm seconds before an earthquake hits. Starlings dance and sway in unison preparing to roost for the evening in a flock large enough to block out the sunset (up to a million birds). These are all examples of cooperative phenomena. We don’t entirely understand how or why so many species cooperate, but we presume that the instinct is that protection against predators can be found in numbers. The instinct to cooperate applies to modern humans too: We still cluster for comfort and security like our ancient ancestors.
I have a close acquaintance who recently bared his soul on Facebook about his big breakup—as if all his 568 “friends” were inside his laptop, ready to comfort him with a gigantic cyber hug. Similarly, a good friend just included me in a group e-mail detailing the results of her colonoscopy. Both people live alone but are intensely connected and loving people whose numbers exceed Dunbar’s.
Our social savvy gets muddled as our technical abilities become sharpened. Technology has made it possible for us to snap a photo and know everything about that person’s identity practically in real time5 (Hutterites, in contrast, resist having their faces photographed, even for their driver’s licenses). Are you giving your identity away in the hope of connecting with others? What are you compromising by doing this?
SIX DEGREES OF JOHN BIELENBERGHow many Facebook “friends” do you have? It feels shameful somehow to have less than 500, doesn’t it? But isn’t “friend” often a euphemism for person-who-may-know-someone-I-may-know? Why do we crave a huge Facebook roster anyway? Is our drive to connect way out of control? Rick Lax of Wired magazine challenged Dunbar’s theory by writing to each and every one of his 2,000 Facebook friends only to find many didn’t even know him. Hutterites would feel horrified. Dunbar would feel vindicated.
There are a small number of mega connectors in the design world-people whom everyone seems to know personally. John Bielenberg is one. He's an easygoing nice guy who, besides being bi-coastal, has traveled to over twenty countries to talk about the value of design and connection. He puts people together, often in teams, often to affect social change, in particular through his baby—Project M.6 He says, “I believe in abundant value instead of scarce value. There is enough stuff to go around.” He has about two-dozen family members and friends and over 250 professional relationships he cultivates, almost twice Dunbar’s number. Although Bielenberg also has 1,500 Facebook friends he says, “The closer the friend, the less is done on Facebook. In fact, there is a direct inversion. I use Facebook for Project M. It’s a broadcast medium. I don’t even look at other people’s pages.” Alex Bogusky, Bielenberg’s partner in common (and a high-profile agency creative director gone rogue) is a public figure on Facebook with 900 likes. But he has only 40 “friends” mostly family and close friends on his personal page. “It took Alex a year to friend me.” Bielenberg says. “But then he has over sixty-five thousand Twitter followers. That’s more his communication medium,” Bielenberg adds. He admits, “I have lots of balls in the air. Staying current is a real challenge and a little overwhelming. Plus engaging in meaningful relationships takes time.” You need to waste time with those you care most deeply about; that’s what makes them important.7
I currently have 120 friend requests awaiting confirmation on Facebook; I’m not convinced some of them are even real people. And a few months ago, when my sister’s identity was hacked on Facebook, my worst fears were confirmed. I became even more cautious. Rampant technology in concert with our burgeoning global population is not only leading to increased wariness, but it’s also increasing our awareness of the need to cultivate cooperation and trust. With nine billion people and a stressed planet, we need to turn this ship around. For that, we need all hands on deck.
WHY DON’T WE CONNECT?There are myriad reasons people don’t cooperate—ego, shyness, language, cultural barriers and social disenfranchisement among them. Introversion is another but it is often misunderstood.
A third to a half of the world’s population, including many in technology, are introverts. They are the ones who stare at their laptops during meetings or sit reading a magazine during a party. Contrary to popular opinion, they like their lives the way they are (eighty percent self-identify as happy). While extroverts thrive on stimulation from the world around them introverts want to be quiet, have a soft voice, look inward. And there is another category—ambiverts—who need a balance of social stimulation and solitude to thrive. The open work plan—the teamwork model—isn’t necessarily good for many of these people. They need privacy and solitude to generate clear thoughts and creative ideas.8 Bringing people together on their own terms is not only respectful, it’s essential to cooperation.
Shame isolates us, keeps us from fully engaging. It is an unspoken epidemic in our culture, the deep dark secret of broken behavior. In the worst cases, shame drives us to alienation, especially men who are often expected to be strong in a way women are not. Alan Turing, the father of computer science, died of shame in 1954. Turing was honestly and openly homosexual when it was against the law in many parts of the world, including in England where he lived. After being found guilty of moral turpitude (i.e., conduct contrary to community standards of good morals), the government forced him to take injections of estrogen to “cure” his homosexuality. Turing committed suicide by taking a bite of a poisoned apple after finding his life unbearable.9
Research professor Brené Brown, who studies vulnerability, says, “Only the wholehearted don’t experience shame. Those individuals have the courage to show their vulnerability, to tell others who they are with their whole heart.” Brown describes these individuals as, “Compassionate to themselves first, with a willingness to let go of who they think they should be, to embrace vulnerability for its beauty.” She continues, “Vulnerability is not a weakness; it defines emotional risk, uncertainty. It’s our most accurate measurement of courage.” Failure is essential and prevalent in anyone’s life who dares to try. Yet fear of failure can paralyze us. Shame makes us hide our true selves, keeps us from making honest connections. Emotional honesty, on the other hand, nurtures empathy and openness: We learn from our failures and the failures of others. Witnessing a person we otherwise admire experiencing a moment of vulnerability inspires us to tap into our own fragile natures. It connects us, frees us, reminds us we are only human, part of nature.10 Creativity is messy, risky and exhilarating. Acknowledging and embracing shame helps achieve wholeheartedness and that opens the door to innovation, change and cooperation. ca
1. The Moral Animal, Robert Wright.
2. Dunbar’s number, Wikipedia.
3. I Am; the documentary, Tom Shadyac.
4. Paul Zak, “Trust Morality and Oxytocin,” TEDtalk.
5. Jan Chipchase, “Design Anthropology,” PopTech.
7. Paraphrase of a quote from The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
8. Susain Cain, “The Power of Introverts,” TEDtalk.
10. Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability,” TEDtalk.