Verbal Grooming, Social Media Tribalism, and Opiates

So, a follow-up to my earlier post on Social Networks and how we behave on them:

Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body is a fascinating book, even if sometimes I feel like the short chapters jolt me out of the experience, and even if his use of the word “ape” as non-inclusive of humans (who actually are members of the ape family) is distracting.1 The text mostly addresses the question of how deeply linked, evolutionarily and neurologically speaking, are the human capacities for music and for language, as well as exploring various theories about the musicality of speech and the the role of music in human evolutionary development.

(Update (5 July 2015): By the way, some evidence—which got discussed in 2013—seems to suggest that Mithen’s core hypothesis in his book—that Neanderthals had a more rudimentary form of language than we do, something intermediate between instinctive signalling used by many animals and the boundlessly inventive magic of human languages, may be wrong. Studies of linguistic diversity and complexity worldwide, as well as of Neanderthal and Denisovian DNA, suggest a cognitive capacity like the modern human, and an array of languages used not only by homo sapiens but also, possibly, by other early humans. Mithen could still be right that Neanderthal language use was more formulaic and less flexible than homo sapiens’,  of course, but it’s not necessarily the case, and this evidence works against the claim somewhat.)

And right bang in the middle of it, I ran across something that addresses a subject that’s been coming up a lot lately:

Non-human primates today express their commitment to each other by grooming — the longer the time spent grooming, the stronger the relationship. As groups become larger, each individual has to invest more time in order to service the increasing number of social relationships he or she must maintain. Grooming creates social bonding and cohesion — although exactly how and why remains unclear. It most probably releases chemicals known as opiates into the brain, which result in a feeling of contentment and pleasure. Social grooming provides the background to one of the most intriguing ideas about the evolution of language — the vocal grooming hypothesis.

— Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body (pg. 135)

Mithen mentions that the hypothesis offers a few reasons why vocal grooming has distinct advantages over physical grooming: a big one is that it frees the hands up for other work, and allows participants to groom multiple members of the cohort at once, across an increased (if still small) distance — say, from an adjacent tree, rather than right up close. Fascinating stuff, especially the thing about the opiates. It certainly suggests one reason why it’s so hard to unplug from these networks once we’ve opted in — though, of course, not the only reason, as my friend Justin Howe notes: all of us have at least a few friends who use Facebook as if it were a substitute for everything from email to the telephone, and no matter how much you want out, it’s kind of the de facto platform for booking group events, at least in the English-speaking world. But I think most of us who do use Facebook and Twitter, use it for other reasons, often ones we can’t quite articulate. I suspect vocal grooming is the real explanation of why we keep going back there so often, especially after we become disillusioned about the idea of Facebook as a “way of keeping in touch.”

But I think Mithen’s observation about opiates cut to the heart of what’s actually hard about leaving Facebook: all that opining is a virtualized form of verbal grooming, and Facebook is the killer app not because of the amplification it provides to messages or because everyone’s on it, but because it amplifies those characteristics of vocal grooming that set it apart from the normal picking-tics-off-your-pals grooming. In other words, Facebook and other social networks like it really are drug-like and addictive, neurochemically, in the same way conversation or hugging a baby is, except that conversation and baby-hugging work on a scale where the hit dopamine hit isn’t “free” and is extremely unlikely to swerve into some kind of crazy exponential curve horror show when you say the wrong thing or hug the wrong way.

So why is it so hard to resist the urge to opine…and opine… and opine?

Those opiates are a pretty compelling reason. In the same way that the diamond industry found the “killer app” for exploiting our mating instincts2, and subprime mortgages exploited our evolved bias toward short-term benefit-driven decision making, Facebook exploits humanity’s primate roots in another way: it’s turned verbal grooming into revenue… for itself. It’s not like we’re going to stop verbally grooming, either, so it seems to me maybe it’s the structure of our social networks that needs changing.

I haven’t read Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? — hopefully I will at some point this year — but (even though I’ve found points to quibble with in things of his that I’ve read in the past) I suspect he has a lot to say about that.

Lanier’s ideas certainly provoked interesting thoughts by Mark Buchanan, regarding how the internet has borked our monetary economies (and for much more on that, see Lanier’s talk at Stanford)… but goes even deeper than that, all the way to the roots of how we interact now on a daily basis.


  1. Well, and the title, which seems to suggest Neanderthals were the evolutionary ancestors of homo sapiens instead of a group of hominids alongside whom homo sapiens existed historically, though I’m only partway through the book and maybe Mithen clarifies later on why he used this title.

  2. Wow, “killer app” hasn’t just dated as a term. It’s up and died. That was quick.

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View Comments (2)

  • The vocal grooming idea linking to opiates in the brain is interesting. (aside, isn't there a difference between opioids and Opiates? One being featured in PulpFiction and the other not? )

    From the beginning Facebook felt disingenuous to me, like making a movie poster of your life. You leave out all but the most awesome reviews. With that in mind, contact is often filtered with, well, bullshit. Outside non utilitarian activities such as, "hey, I'm throwing a kegger," facebook just feels like stroking your own ego: cheap opiates.

    Not the good stuff like, you know, sitting in the same room with someone.

    And of course there is the whole, "Am I comfortable saying BLAH BLAH, in a stadium of people?"

    If you are comfortable, then you're likely with solely like-minded people who won't challenge your assumptions in order to grow as people, etc. Or you're involved in a shouting match until the mob gangs up and demands you to apologize to the world for saying something stupid or having an unpopular (often stupid) opinion.

    But you know, the local pub used to be the thing in every community. Maybe when robots do all the work, the local pub will become cool again.

    • Joe,

      No idea why I never replied to this. I suppose because it was at the beginning of my first semester at a new job? Anyway: yeah, opioids are neurochemicals you produce naturally. (They help when you stub your toe, for example.) I think opiates are the derivatives of poppies, the active ingredient in laudanum or opium.

      Facebook: well, it has put me in touch with more fellow authors and even wih some readers, as well as with friends who jumped ship from email to Facebook. A lot of people now seem to use Facebook messaging for what I think of as the purpose of email, and that makes me sad in part because I think whole correspondences—vast chunks of our personal and cultural history—are getting lost, or will be when Facebook deletes that stuff or removes access to old archives... and anyway, Facebook owns those convserations now. What would our world be like if Facebook had owned and deleted Plato's works because nobody was that interested? (It took Plato ages to go "viral" after all.)

      And yeah, personal interaction is much better. Speaking of which, we should meet up sometime. I'll email you.

      By the way, I think there's another way to use Facebook: I tend toward that other way, which is, as a place to have public discussions and debates. But it's a very rare approach. Usually my comments get a tl;dr response from other readers (though not from my friends) and my willingness to type into a void, especially a corporate void, has tapered off over time. Local pubs... ah, well, we can hope. But I don't see the robotic manumission of humanity from labour coming for a good long while.

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