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People that often find themselves in uncertain social situations may develop greater cognitive skills

Published: 31 MAY 2018 09:23AM

Words by Nikolai Sokolov | Science Editor


Social interaction is an extremely complex process and you will rarely experience the exact same interaction more than once in your lifetime, however, with each social interaction you experience and encounter your brain will use this information to try to predict the outcome of future interactions based on your previous experience.

Although your interactions will be varied across your lifetime, they all hold two things in common, certainty, and uncertainty. You may have found yourself in many situations where you're not quite sure what to do, or, your brain springs into action and you glide seamlessly through the event. This is as a result of a technique known as a 'heuristic'.

A heuristic is any approach to problem-solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals. Where finding an optimal solution is impossible or impractical, heuristic methods can be used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution.

This is essentially what is known as a mental or cognitive shortcut, whereby your brain attempts to use as much information as it needs in order to come to an efficient resolution to the situation at hand.

Pieter van den Berg and Tom Wenseleers of KU Leuven Lab of Socioecology and Social Evolution, Belgium, recently published a paper titled, 'Uncertainty about social interactions leads to the evolution of social heuristics'.

Using an evolutionary simulation model, the team show that even intermediate uncertainty leads to the evolution of simple cooperation strategies (‘social heuristics’).

"Although it is known that unpredictable environments can profoundly affect the evolutionary process, it remains unclear how uncertainty about the nature of social interactions shapes the evolution of social behaviour"

Their simulation shows, "social heuristics evolve when individuals face many different social interaction types in their lives and have uncertainty about the nature of the interactions they face".

When people find themselves in a social situation, (or any situation) with a low uncertainty, they rely on previously experienced outcomes that are expected to be of benefit or a solution to the problem. This could even consist of choosing what to wear in the morning. Some people have a selection of go-to outfits that require little problem solving as to whether or not it is suitable for that day.

Whereas, when there is a moderate to high level of uncertainty involved, the model shows people are likely to evolve multiple heuristic strategies in order to resolve the situation, which can lead to the cognitive development and a wider range of mental shortcuts for the subject to draw upon in future situations.

"The social heuristics in our model were likely to evolve when uncertainty was intermediate to high and was associated with higher levels of cooperation than the more sophisticated strategies that evolved under low uncertainty."

Whilst this was only a simulation, the results do suggest that putting yourself out of your comfort zone could potentially be very beneficial for continued cognitive development in social situations.

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