Are we born social?

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Making those social connections that carry us through our day to day is something we all do. Whilst most argue that it’s habit that keeps us building this network, the need for collaboration could be more natural to us than many think. 

Looking back at our time as infants can teach us a lot about why we have this impulse to cooperate later in life. But are we born social - or is it nurture, not nature, that gives us the urge to work together?

The infant years

Michael Tomasello’s book, Why We Cooperate, studied infants from 18 months and found they had an overwhelming urge to help unrelated adults. If for example, the unrelated adult drops an item, the child will help to pick it up straight away.

Tomasello’s data also covered infants aged 12 months, who would assist adults in acquiring a lost object that they could see but the adult couldn’t. Behaviour isn’t learned between the ages of 12 and 18 months. Infants of this age work off pure instinct. 

To prove that point, children in Tomasello’s study were rewarded for being helped. The interesting thing is they didn’t help more as a result. This proves that the urge to help others is innate, and not learned through training as many people suggest.

Nature versus nurture

Unfortunately, this innate willingness doesn’t last. As we age, we learn new norms. Norms that distinguish who should and shouldn’t be helped. Instead of blindly helping others, we use a more sophisticated, incentive-based system to control this natural desire and receive better rewards for our efforts.

Even as adults, the need to make social contact and help others is based on incentives, motivation, and control. This natural desire is funnelled appropriately, to deliver positive outcomes for the individual. 


These positive outcomes don’t just relate to achieving personal progression and professional success. Being social is good for you and caters to the most basic human needs as South University explains:

“As humans, social interaction is essential to every aspect of our health. Research shows that having a strong network of support or strong community bonds fosters both emotional and physical health and is an important component of adult life. Over the years, there have been a number of studies showcasing the relationship between social support and the quality of physical and psychological health.”

Putting social connections first

It’s possible to spend too much time crafting mission and value statements that supposedly support and inspire their workforce, and bring everyone together to work towards a shared goal. 

Putting relationships and social connections before such ideas however will remove the need for these long-winded, entirely aspirational beliefs, and get you to the fundamentals of successful team building.

Ideas may pave the way to innovation but it’s your people and the conversations between them that make the creation of ideas possible. The collaboration of your employees and the social connections they make in the process will bring a string of ideas and insights to the table. Ideas are sparked through working together, playing together, and thinking together.