Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

By Robert Sapolsky (2017)

In a 2008 study in Science, subjects were given either five dollars or twenty dollars; half were instructed to spend it that day on themselves, half on someone else (ranging from a friend to a charity). And comparisons of self-assessments of happiness at the beginning and end of the day showed that neither the larger amount of money nor the opportunity to spend it on oneself increased happiness; only spending it on someone else did.

When you praise kids for working hard, they tend to work harder the next time, show more resilience, enjoy the process more, and become more likely to value the accomplishment for its own sake (rather than for the grade). Praise kids for being smart, and precisely the opposite occurs.

🗣 Robert Sapolsky on Why We Behave the Way We Do (Sean Carroll’s Mindscape).

My Notes


Self-control is a finite resource (frontal neurons are expensive cells).

It’s great if your frontal cortex lets you avoid temptation, allowing you to do the harder, better thing. But it’s usually more effective if doing that better thing has become so automatic that it isn’t hard.

As with so many other primates, the biographies of our most hierarchically successful members are built around what provocations are ignored during occasions where the frontal cortex kept a level head.


Stress can disrupt cognition, impulse control, emotional regulation, decision making, empathy, and prosociality


Mobilizing energy while sprinting for your life helps save you. Do the same thing chronically because of a stressful thirty-year mortgage, and you’re at risk for various metabolic problems.

Contemporary studies show that the worst stress-related health typically occurs in middle management, with its killer combo of high work demands but little autonomy—responsibility without control.

Emotional Intelligence

💡 Emotional and social intelligence predict adult success and happiness better than IQ or grades.

It’s all about social memory, emotional perspective taking, impulse control, empathy, ability to work with others, self-regulation.


Adolescence and early adulthood are the times when someone is most likely to kill, be killed, leave home forever, invent an art form, help overthrow a dictator, ethnically cleanse a village, devote themselves to the needy, become addicted, marry outside their group, transform physics, have hideous fashion taste, break their neck recreationally, commit their life to God, mug an old lady, or be convinced that all of history has converged to make this moment the most consequential, the most fraught with peril and promise, the most demanding that they get involved and make a difference. In other words, it’s the time of life of maximal risk taking, novelty seeking, and affiliation with peers. All because of that immature frontal cortex.

Ask adults to think about what they imagine others think of them, then about what they think of themselves. Two different, partially overlapping networks of frontal and limbic structures activate for the two tasks. But with adolescents the two profiles are the same. “What do you think about yourself?” is neurally answered with “Whatever everyone else thinks about me.”


Gossiping serves numerous purposes. It helps for reality testing (“Is it just me, or was he being a total jerk?”), passing news (“Two guesses who just happened to get a foot cramp during the hairiest part of the hunt today”), and building consensus (“Something needs to be done about this guy”). Gossip is the weapon of norm enforcement.

Anthropologists, studying everyone from hunter-gatherers to urbanites, have found that about two thirds of everyday conversation is gossip, with the vast majority of it being negative. As has been said, gossip (with the goal of shaming) is a weapon of the weak against the powerful.


It is tempting to think that feeling someone’s pain is necessarily virtuous in its own right. The peril of empathy isn’t simply that it can make us feel bad, but that it can make us feel good, which can in turn encourage us to think of empathy as an end in itself rather than part of a process, a catalyst.


The opposite of play is not work—it’s depression.


In the developed world, when compared with rural populations, city dwellers are typically healthier and wealthier; larger social networks facilitate innovation; because of economies of scale, cities leave a smaller per-capita ecological footprint.