WORKPLACE / MAR. 09, 2014
version 2, draft 2

Monkey Business: How to Avoid Mistakes On Your First Day

Starting a new job can be tiring. We meet a lot of new people, are introduced to a myriad of new computer systems and need to navigate a new environment. We can be exhausted by the end of our first week as we jump from one terrifying newbie experience to another.

A big fear when we start a new job is worry about making mistakes, not understanding the office culture and making a big gaffe. Will we accidentally delete the customer relations database or make an equally catastrophic social gaffe of epic proportions?

Probably not. According to new research by neuroscientists at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Japan we are hard-wired to soak up the social rules of a new culture and to avoid making mistakes.

There is an entire neural circuit dedicated to the very job of observing and learning from the errors of others. Neurons fire off like volcanoes when a mistake is being made by others that we could learn from. So, in a new job observe the behaviour of others to judge what is OK and what is not in your new environment.

In the study, researchers observed the behaviour of monkeys and located a neural circuit believed to be dedicated solely to recognising social errors in others.

The findings, published in the journal Frontiers reveals more about the nature of the brain and social learning. It is believed that this neural process exists to protect us and our fellow animal friends in an unfamiliar social environments.


Researchers observed two monkeys which monitored each other’s action for their own action selection.

A game involving the monkey’s partner’s response being "right" was played in order for the observing monkey to elicit a treat.

In some games, the researchers changed the rules which meant the monkey was likely to be wrong in its selection. The observing monkey in this case did not receive a treat.

The experiment showed that a group of neurons exhibited a substantial increase in activity associated with witnessing another’s errors. The neurons were located in the medical frontal cortex (MFC) – the part of the brain that processes self-generated errors.

Nearly half of the MFC neurons showed activity changes consistent with general reward-mission signals.

The remaining neurons however responded specifically to witnessing another’s mistakes.

The findings indicate that the brain contains a dedicated circuit for monitoring others’ mistakes during social interactions.


The structure in the brain that supports the monitoring of other’s errors is poorly understood. The mechanisms are important as they underlie observational learning and thus play a big part in allowing for adaptive behaviour in uncertain social environments.

Researchers were surprised to find that these select neurons showed signs of responding to another animal’s error, but not to his or her own mistake.

A "mirror neuron system" – a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another – has previously been proposed as a way for the brain to make sense of the actions of others.

The neurons are located in the front of the brain in monkeys, and according to co-author Masaki Isoda, humans are likely to have similar cells.

This new research however suggests a more complex picture of what happens in the brain when witnessing another making a gaffe.

So, when you next stick the computer on and start working, don't just what look at what happens on your screen. Observe what happens around you to learn the new culture in your new office. And don't worry too much about making mistakes. You have your brain on your side.



Original source: Frontiers: Social error monitoring in the macaque frontal cortex 

Image: with thanks to Darren Dean of RGB Freestock


Get our FREE eBook!
'6 Steps to Landing Your Next Job'





Get our FREE eBook!
'6 Steps to Landing Your Next Job'

G up arrow
</script> </script>