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Social: Why our brains are wired to connect Hardcover – 10 Oct 2013

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (10 Oct. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199645043
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199645046
  • Product Dimensions: 16.3 x 3.5 x 23.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 264,234 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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This isn't just fascinating for its own sake. Lieberman has a social and political purpose. (Julian Baggini, Financial Times)

This is a compelling and thought-provoking book. (Grrl Scientist)

Lieberman animates our grey matter as a frenziedly active kernel looking for ways to synchronize our reflexes with others. (Amelia Walsh, The Observer)

Matthew Liberman's book is good: it reads well, the structure is helpful and linear for the general-interest reader while also offering some depth for the detail-oriented bookworm or specialist. (Tristan Bekinschtein, Times Higher Education)

SOCIAL is the book I've been waiting for: a brilliant and beautiful exploration of how and why we are wired together, by one of the field's most prescient pioneers. (Daniel Gilbert, professor, Harvard University, bestselling author of Stumbling On Happiness)

This fascinating, beautifully written book brings the exciting research on our social nature and the brain to life (Shelley Taylor, distinguished professor, UCLA, author of The Tending Instinct)

About the Author

Matthew D. Lieberman is Professor at the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Judith Sharman on 18 Oct. 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an exceptional book, examining the latest in neuroscience and demonstrating how social interactions are woven into the very essence of how we live our lives. The implications for our personal, family, community and workplace relationships are all explored. Lieberman manages to make the 'science' not only intelligible to the lay person but entertaining and absolutely compelling! This book should be compulsory reading for leaders of `organizations' such as schools and workplaces - implementing even a few his suggestions would make phenomenal changes for the better.
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By Sara Villehaartt on 5 April 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Brilliant book :)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 99 reviews
49 of 53 people found the following review helpful
About evolution's molding of the social brain 3 Sept. 2013
By B. Case - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect," by Matthew Lieberman, is an outstanding and fascinating layperson's guide to the new field of social cognitive neuroscience--an interdisciplinary field that "uses the tools of neuroscience to study the mental mechanisms that create, frame, regulate, and respond to our experience of the social world." In the process of investigating these mechanisms, this science advances our knowledge of the evolutionary path that continue to mold our social brain. The book seeks to answer: why are we wired to connect socially; what advantages did our species gain by evolving along this evolutionary path; how can we use this knowledge to improve society?

This is the perhaps the fifth layperson's guide to neuroscience that I've read in the past few years. Not all have been easy or pleasurable to read. Much of neurology seems inherently difficult, but it doesn't have to be. It the right hands it can be accessible and mesmerizing. In my estimation, this book compares very well to last year's bestselling neuroscience book by V. S. Ramachandran entitled, "The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human." If you are not familiar with Ramachandran, saying this is high praise for Lieberman and this book. After all, Ramachandran is considered one of the leading lights of the academic neuroscience community. He is also a profoundly gifted writer. Lieberman is not far behind; like Ramachandran, he shows an extraordinary ability to convey difficult concepts clearly and personably.

I've always loved psychology. Over my lifetime, I've read at least a master's degree equivalent of academic psychology books. Now I've discovered neurology. Putting the two together has been thrilling. Lieberman's book provided a fresh social focus on neurology. He also provides a wealth of new information and discoveries--particularly information about the results of recent experiments undertaken by his UCLA Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory.

In this book, I learned that our brains' have a default network that comes on like a reflex whenever we're not concentrating on doing something else. That default network is all about connecting with others socially. It is an evolved predisposition. It is the brain's preferred state of being. "Most of us have been taught that our bigger brains evolved to enable us to do abstract reasoning, which promoted agriculture, mathematics, and engineering as complex tools to solve the basic problems of survival, But increasing evidence suggests that one of the primary drivers behind our brains becoming enlarged was to facilitate our social cognitive skills--our ability to interact and get along well with others."

I was amazed to learn that social pain (e.g., from rejection) comes from the same part of the brain as physical pain and incredibly, it, too, can benefit from over-the-counter pain medications!

Another concept that surprised me was about how the importance of being treated fairly is wired into our social brains. When we experience fair treatment, it activates the exact same brain pleasure circuits as those that light up when we eat something delicious. So being treated fairly is in some ways like eating chocolate!

I was astonished to learn that self-control center of our brain is like a muscle; use it too much and it becomes fatigued and needs time to recover. The author convinced me that brain's mechanism for self-control benefits society more than it benefits the individual...that "self-control is the price of admission to society." We may "think that people are built to maximize their own pleasure and minimize their own pain. In reality, we are actually built to overcome our own pleasure and increase our own pain in the service of following society's norms."

It is concepts like these (and many more) that kept me riveted to this book.

In the last section of the book, the author steps away from informing us about the detailed neuroscience of how our brains are profoundly social and gives us some of his own best ideas about how we might use this information to better society. He sticks his neck out on the line here, but he's got some interesting ideas and I applaud him for starting the discussion.

Overall, "Social" was a delightful cerebral treat. I feel indebted to the author for taking the time and energy to explain these intriguing concepts in such a compelling and comprehensible fashion.

I recommend this book highly. In my estimation, you couldn't have a better guide to understanding the social brain than this very accessible and appealing book.
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
Our social intelligence is more important than our cognitive intelligence 11 Sept. 2013
By Philip Henderson - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Lieberman has taken a difficult subject, how the social life of humans is mediated in the brain, and written a book that will help a layman understand. The social life of humans is similar to the life of fish in water. Fish do not notice water because it is everywhere and necessary. The social life of humans is always taking control of our understanding of our everyday life. We have no life without our social world. Liberman makes this subject fun to read. Just enough reference to brain structures to demonstrate that he knows what he is doing, not so much that you feel a need to study brain anatomy. The book is fast paced and clear. I will recommend it to my clients who study leadership. There is a lot of practical suggestions in this book.

This is an example of a university professor taking his careful scientific research and turning it into an accessible book for a layperson. The stories he writes about his research are illuminating and striking. This is a page turner that makes a reader want to learn more about our wonderful human brain. Lieberman is on the cutting edge of understanding how our brain presents the world to human understanding. I am grateful that he has taken time to share his work with the public when he could have used his time publishing in scientific journals. I like it when scientists make the effort to release their important findings to the public.
75 of 96 people found the following review helpful
Some good science, some bad explanations and some terrible recommendations 31 Aug. 2013
By Aaron C. Brown - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The author sets out to tell us that human brains have evolved to weigh social considerations, our interactions with other people, far more heavily than we realize. Unfortunately, he chooses to accomplish this by telling us we never had any idea that they were important at all. Everyone knows social factors matter. Even when you're fed up with everyone and just want to be left alone to read a book or play with your toys, you rely on others to write the book or make the toys. And you always rely on others for food, protection, healthcare, hey, for existence--even if you care nothing for love, companionship, stimulation and other pure social joys. On the flip side, interactions with people can be deadly, so you have to care. There may be a few hermits who live solitary and self-sufficient lives, but everyone knows they are both rare and weird.

This is not a single annoying sentence at the beginning of the book, it is pounded home every few pages. For example, "People often talk as if their company, job, or workplace is solely about getting a paycheck and helping the company increase profits. This is all predicated on the norm of self-interest--the belief that material self-interest is the only thing that motivates people individually and corporately. We have been bombarded with this idea for so long that it's the only conversation we know how to have about the workplace." Huh? Someone may be following the author around bombarding him, but I have seldom heard that idea expressed. Read any book, watch any movie or TV show, and you see it's about people pursuing goals with respect to other people: love, sex, respect, kindness, fear and lots of other stuff. Most organizations are not for-profit corporations, they have explicit social goals and often no material ones. Even the for-profit ones claim goals beyond making money: helping customers, empowering employees, being good corporate citizens. True, someone will sometimes say his job is "just a paycheck," but it's a statement of discontent. If he really couldn't imagine anything else, he wouldn't bother to say it. Almost no one says the people he works with are just impersonal instruments for growing corporate profits, or that he cares nothing about his physical workspace except how efficient it is.

The author's low opinion of the reader's intelligence applies to everyone else. "Imagine the face of a CEO of a Fortune 500 company when being pitched the idea that in order to motivate his employees, he should focus less on financial incentives and more on status, relatedness and fairness. His expression might reveal contempt or confusion as to why you would make such a ridiculous claim." I will spare you the rest, the author waxes on about his imagined triumph in almost pornographic detail. He has clearly spent a lot of time daydreaming about powerful people being overwhelmed with his knowledge. Unfortunately, it's not only knowledge everyone has, but that a CEO in particular needs a firm grasp of in order to survive. Forget the Fortune 500, talk to anyone who has to manage people, from a kindergarten teacher to a drill sergeant to the manager of the college dining hall. All of them know this stuff far better than the author. Even if you manage no one, you know it.

In fact, it is the author's understanding of these issues that is weak. He cites a study of a gold star program that motivated sales people successfully. The study calculated that employees would give up $27,000 of cash compensation to get a gold star. The author goes crazy with this, imagining telling his CEO that he can give out gold stars instead of paychecks. "Recognition is a free renewable resource. . .the $27,000. . .went straight to the company's bottom line--as profit."

The first thing that's wrong with this is the author has just undercut his entire argument by suggesting he is motivated entirely by money. He doesn't think about how to use this insight for social gain. This happens a lot in the book, it's clear the author doesn't believe his own story. The second thing is recognition only works when it is fair, recognition from someone who regards it as a "free renewable resource" to be substituted for money is worthless. Moreover, the employees in the study were still paid fairly, the recognition was in addition to that. Recognition is not a way to cut pay, it's a way to increase employee motivation and satisfaction.

What's even more important than what the author thinks you don't know, is what he doesn't know. This is a sugar-and-spice story of how social interactions can make people feel better. Nowhere is it mentioned that social forces have a dark side as well. People can drive you crazy, or torture you. The same forces that make an effective work group can make a lynch mob. The security of being inside a group creates outsiders, and sometimes horrific violence. Everything the author celebrates has been around for thousands of years, probably millions, during most of which there was little enlightenment, progress, learning, respect for rights, justice for outsiders or dozens of other things that are the pride of human civilization. He despises the tools that made this possible, including money, legalistic and rationalized human relations and sometimes simply leaving other people alone. He's just wrong that the answer to every question is to get more warm and fuzzy with other people.

Fortunately, there is some redeeming merit. When the author is not abusing the reader or daydreaming he summarizes a good deal of fascinating neuroscience. His writing is clear and stylish, and gets better the closer he gets to his research and the farther he gets from self-congratulation.

Unfortunately, I have some gripes even here. They're milder than the ones above, but they detract significantly from the value of the book. He oversimplifies the science enormously. He discusses brain imaging as if you can see regions switching on and off when people engage in certain mental behavior. Despite massive advances in the last 20 years, the reality is far more complex. Conclusions are based on complex processing and statistical aggregation over many individuals. We can detect only certain gross features: chemicals released over macroscopic areas, things thought to proxy for metabolic activity, electrical emissions. We only know what people say they're thinking about, and even if they tell the truth, know very little about what is going on in their brain. Tests while people are engaging in activity are better in one sense, we do know what they are doing, but worse in the sense that we know little about the connection between what people do and what they think.

This does not invalidate the science, but it does mean conclusions are far more tentative and complex than as presented in the book. The areas of consensus come from many people studying things from different ways, and there are many anomalies and areas of ignorance. The author would have to have much more faith in his reader's intelligence to convey an accurate picture of what we know, and what we might learn.

The farther he gets from his field, the worse this gets. He mixes rigorous scientific studies with uncontrolled, small sample, ad hoc experiments by people without qualifications hoping to make money from the results--and he doesn't note the difference. He constantly discusses evolution as if it is run by a designer, which is exactly not the point. He makes wild assumptions, like if two current species share a trait their last common ancestor must have had the trait; or that the order the brain develops in an individual is the same order as the features emerged in evolution. He treats all human institutions, including ancient ones, as badly-designed because (of course) no one but him understands the importance of social forces. But institutions evolve too. The time scale is shorter than biological evolution, but it doesn't make sense that suboptimal institutions would continuously win out over the author's ideas if they were not better in some way.

I actually learned a lot from this book, annoying as it was. If you're willing to do the work separating the wheat from the chaff, I think you'll find some good in here. But I suspect most readers will find it too annoying and too imprecise to be worth reading.
21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
a very interesting read 26 Sept. 2013
By Nicholas Sterling - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Let me say up front that I enjoyed this book, but I had some issues with it. Let me say what I did *not* like first, and then what I did.

The title ends "Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect," leading the reader to expect this book to be largely about evolutionary psychology -- explaining *why* the brain does what it does requires investigating the adaptive value of brain features over the history of humans and beyond. That is absolutely *not* what this book is about. Just striking the word "Why" from the title would make it much more appropriate to the book's actual content.

In fact, there were places where I thought the author *should* have dived into the evolutionary mechanics but did not. For example, in the discussion about altruism there was nothing about the fact that altruism is perfectly explained when you stop focusing on individuals as the unit of selection and correctly focus on the genes themselves. No mention of Tit-for-Tat and related strategies, ESSes, or anything of the sort. In fact the author seemed to imply that explanations from other quarters got it wrong, and the book was setting the record straight. Hmmm. In another section the author talked about our social wiring as though it had evolved for the good of the species, but again, evolution operates primarily at the level of genes, not species. A gene or gene combination that makes an organism more successful at reproducing will increase in frequency in a population, that's all -- evolution is not a mystic hand trying to make a better species. A for-the-good-of-the-species argument is not a good one.

The margins of my copy of the book are filled with notes, many of which are objections to conclusions drawn or the way something was presented. BUT -- there are also many marks about things that I found quite interesting. The author shares a lot of research that sheds insight into the way the human brain creates our social behavior, some of it quite surprising. He writes well -- the book is never boring -- and covers a variety of topics about our sociality, weaving together personal anecdotes and research.

Toward the end of the book the author gets prescriptive, relating what we have just learned about our social nature and its importance in our lives to education, work, etc. This was also quite interesting, perhaps even my favorite part.

The book isn't perfect, but it's an enjoyable read on an interesting topic.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Neuroscientific Explanations of Human Sociality! 29 Nov. 2013
By Kevin Currie-Knight - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I think just about everyone knows that humans are predisposed to be social and that one thing that sets humans apart from other species is our ability (and predilection) for cooperating with others. But did you realize that much of the same brain activity that occurs during instances of physical pain occur during instances of 'social pain' (break ups, social embarrassment, etc)? What about that when our brains are not actively doing other things, we tend to be thinking about other people and our relationships with them? That mirror neurons might help explain a bit of how we feel others pain, but only to a limited degree?

All of this research - and more to do with explaining how and why humans are 'hardwired' to be social - is reviewed in this book. "Social" is one in a line of books written by important researchers as attempts to summarize their (and others') research for a lay audience. Lieberman is pretty good at that, not only walking us through what neuroscience research reveals about different subjects, but peppering chapters with backstories about how he got interested in those subjects, how he has designed research to answer those questions, and anecdotes that illustrate some of the points of the relevant research.

Toward the end of the book, LIeberman discusses how he thinks some of the research (showing exactly how social we are and the neural mechanisms involved in our sociability) might be applied to things like schooling and work. Mostly, Lieberman suggests that many of the solitary enterprises we engage in - learning, work - should integrate the social stuff (that most of us consider 'play') in a way that actually strengthens the work. (What if, for instance, we allowed students to talk in class and really create knowledge socially instead of doing assignments and assessments more individually.)

I thought the book was fairly interesting, though much is just a scientific understanding of behaviors that we already observe in humans (which sometimes make the research a bit mundane-seeming). Great for those who want to get a good neuroscientific understanding of the extent to which - and why - humans are a truly social species.
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