Why we care about what other people think

13 Dec

Couldn’t get over that backhanded compliment your co-worker gave about your new clothes/haircut/looks? You are vindicated – there is an explanation as to why we give a damn about other people’s opinion, even if we intellectually know not to.

In an interview with Vox, William von Hippel, a psychology professor at the University of Queensland and author of The Social Leap said caring about what others think is the key to social success.

He said it all began when human ancestors began coming together and working in groups in East Africa to protect themselves against predators.

“The consequences of this were profound for how we lived and how our minds worked,” said von Hippel. “Suddenly, we were much more successful when our group goals aligned with our individual goals, which is, in this particular case, cooperation for mutual defence.”

That, according to von Hippel, was when humans started experiencing a massive change in their psychology and brain power. Human brains have tripled in size since then, after growing a mere 70 grams for three million years.

“Why did that happen? Well, living together in large groups presented all sorts of challenges that had to be solved, and in solving them, we had to become more sophisticated, more intelligent, more innovative,” said von Hippel. In other words, human intelligence evolved to work with each other effectively rather than to solve any abstract or complex problems in our environment. Dealing with other people means considering their thoughts and behaviours, because that’s the key to achieving goals effectively.

“Simultaneously, because our groups have historically been so essential to keeping us alive, getting tossed out of them was often a death sentence for us,” said von Hippel. This principle has become so hardwired in our psyche that it’s survived for millennials and continued to remain relevant today.

“I think we’ve returned to this ancestral environment with the internet. People use social media to judge each other, to punish and reward, to regulate behavior. And the problem is that when all those people pile on you, it can be devastating because we’ve evolved in an environment in which having 20 people pile on you might have been a death sentence.”

Getting hate comments on Twitter is not quite the same as being eaten by lions in the wild, but we’re evolved to see both as a result of social ousting. So next time you’re bothered by some offhand comments, give yourself a break – but remember that the stakes aren’t as alike as you subconsciously think.