November 28, 2013

The benefits of social cognition vs the benefits of task-focused processing

In Social: why our brains are wired to connect (also read this post), Matt Lieberman explains that, within our brains there are two quite distinct neural systems for respectively social and non-social thinking. These two systems appear to be antagonistic in the sense that when one of the two is very active, the other is largely inactive. In addition to this he explains that whenever a person is focused on a specific task the non-social system is turned on and as soon as the person stops focusing on the task, his or her social system will turn on. Because this neural system becomes active as soon as one finishes a specific task, it is called the default nework. It seems that when we are not focusing on a specific task we are not doing nothing. We are engaged in social cognition, in other words, thinking about other people and our relationships with them. Lieberman writes:
"The social network really does come on like a reflex. It is the brain's preferred state of being, one that it returns to literally the second it has a chance."
Lieberman describes this preference for social thinking as something good, saying that our default social thinking primes us to be prepared for effective social thinking.

When I read about this I remembered a post I wrote a few years ago: In praise of task focus. In that post I wrote about a book chapter by Michael Robinson and Maya Tamir called A Task-Focused Mind is a Happy and Productive Mind: A Processing Perspective. The authors compared two modes of processing: task-focused and self-focused. They say that because of the limitation of our attention, these two modes of processing inhibit each other; so either you are self-focused or you are task-focused. Based on research, the authors say that a task-focused mode of processing is generally more conducive to positive affect, mental health, and productivity while a self-focused processing mode leads to negative affect, psychopathology, and lesser task success.

Question: I am a bit confused. To what extent do these two bits of research contradict each other? Lieberman's research suggests that non-task focused cognition is very useful for effective social thinking while Robinson and Tamir's chapter suggests that a task focus is important for mental health. 


  1. Maybe both of them are right and non-task focused cognition has an inner and outer locus of attention. I'm no scientist but I can imagine that social interaction with the "what can I get?" focus could yield very different results than social interaction with the "what can I give?" focus (competition vs. cooperation).

    Task focused could provide happiness via flow, non-task focused could provide happiness via relating. :)


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