Today’s post Why We Want What Others Have is a guest post written by author Loretta Breuning. This is a follow on to her recent appearance on my podcast The Segilola Salami Show. Loretta teaches people about the brain chemicals that make us feel good: dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. She focuses on how we can get more of them in healthy ways, and why it’s hard. She has written many books on the subject after a long career as college professor.
Why We Want What Others Have by Loretta Breuning
The mammal brain is designed to observe what others get and seek it
Mammals are social animals. They learn by watching others. When they see others get a reward, it triggers their reward circuits. Dopamine is released and it feels good! Dopamine is the brain’s signal that a reward is possible and worth investing effort in. We humans have inherited brain structures that release dopamine when we see others get a reward.
I’m not saying you should want what others have. I’m saying you do, and when you know how you create this urge, you have power over it. Unfortunately, people do the opposite much of the time. They blame society for their urges and end up feeling powerless. You can control your natural feelings about what others have when you know how your brain produces them. Here is a simple guide.
An old-timey example
The famous explorer Captain Cook saved lives by manipulating the mammalian urges of his crew. He wanted his men to eat Vitamin C to protect them from scurvy on long ocean voyages. Sailors often died of scurvy in the 1700s, and it’s an especially horrible death. The cause was unknown, but Cook observed that no one got scurvy on German ships that served sauerkraut daily. Cook provided sauerkraut, but his sailors refused to eat it.
So Captain Cook put platters of it on the officers’ table. Then he permitted the sailors to help themselves from the officers’ platters. Soon, everyone wanted it, and Cook’s voyages were the first to wipe out the horrible disease of Vitamin C deficiency.
You want what others have. You hate to admit it, but when you see others take pleasure in something, you want it too. Not material things necessarily. It might be respect and attention. It might be skill, or the love of a special someone. Whatever it is, strong feelings are released when you see others having it. Your rational verbal cortex has trouble explaining these strong feelings because they are not produced by your cortex. They’re produced by your mammalian limbic system. Let’s zoom in and see how it works.
Monkey see, monkey do
Before language evolved, animals learned to meet their needs by watching others meet their need.
Research shows that the brain doesn’t mirror everything it sees. Mirror neurons are activated when a primate sees another individual get a reward or risk pain. The primate brain evolved to meet its needs and avoid harm by observing the way others meet their needs and avoid harm.
For example, a baby monkey sees its mother reach for fruit and put it in her mouth. So the little monkey grasps food and puts it in his mouth. There’s no conscious awareness that the food relieves hunger. The child simple reaches for rewards that others reach for thanks to mirror neurons.
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Research on mirror neurons shows that they activate when we observe another person get a survival-relevant consequence– either pleasure or pain. Repeated observation wires a young brain to seek the pleasures it sees in others and avoid the pain encountered by others.
Mirror neurons have more power than you might imagine. A young monkey is never given solid food. It will starve to death unless it learns to find its own food before mother’s milk is gone. Yet every little monkey figures it out, without the help of language and curriculum development experts. A little monkey learns because mirror neurons activate reward feelings and threat feelings. The dopamine of reward and the cortisol of threat are like paving on their neuralpathways. They wire the young brain to repeat behaviors that get rewards and avoid behaviors that bring pain.
The primate brain is not born hard-wired with survival skills. It wires itself from experience. Without conscious intent, it wires itself to seek what others seek.
Mate-Choice Copying in the Animal World
Animals are interested in mating partners that are seen with others. Researchers have documented mate-choice copying in a wide range of species. This phenomenon is eerily reminiscent of human life, especially in high school.
The facts of life are hard to accept. We like to believe that the state of nature is pure and altruistic, and our society is to blame for the frustrations of social comparison. Alas, we have inherited a brain that learns from others. We can manage our brain better when we accept it. When you deny your true impulses, you verbal brain fills in the blanks with fancy theories, but you still end up frustrated. Your verbal brain is skilled at blaming others for your frustration, but the bad feelings linger. It can even motivate bad choices.
The Pitfalls of Social Comparison
Here’s an example that’s far away yet curiously familiar. In Captain Cook’s day, blood-letting was a common treatment for disease. If you had money, you hired a doctor to come and bleed you. (George Washington died this way, as did Catherine the Great.) If you didn’t have money, you urgently looked for a way to pay for this treatment. Today, many dubious treatments are available, and people urgently want “access” to these treatment because others are getting them.
When you offer cupcakes to children, they easily get frustrated over the cupcake another child has chosen. That cupcake suddenly seems more valuable. When I was a mom, I tried to make all the cupcakes look the same to prevent such tussles. Now that I understand the mammal brain, I don’t think I did the right thing. I should have been teaching kids to manage this impulse in the long-run instead of just buying peace in the short-run.
I should have taught them to distinguish between sauerkraut and blood-letting for themselves.
The mammalian facts of life are hard to accept. Indeed, they have become taboo. We are told that animals are altruistic and “our society” is the root of social comparison. This leads to the belief that fighting “our society” is the path to mental health.
What would happen if you took off the system-blaming goggles and looked directly at your deeper impulses? Then you would have the power to monitor your thought loops and choose a new thought when necessary.
This is hard to do because you have to acknowledge the self-interested focus of your mammal brain. Self-interest has been condemned in today’s world. We are taught to deny our self-interested impulses, and find more socially-acceptable explanations for our feelings. We can easily see the self-interested impulses in others, of course. Frustration results. We could relieve this frustration by being honest with ourselves.
I am not saying we should be selfish. I’m saying we are selfish, and those who deny it are promoting their self-interest by denying it. When you are honest about the core impulses of your operating system, you can control them more easily. When you deny your own impulses, you lose control over them. You believe you are controlled by external forces so you overlook your internal power. I have written extensively on how to do this, both in this blog (here, here and here), and in my book, I, Mammal: How to Make Peace With the Animal Urge for Social Power.
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