Social networks improve odds for nice guys
Turns out, facebook could be helping out the nice guys. A new study reports that dynamic, complex social networks encourage their members to be friendlier and more cooperative, with the possible payoff coming in an expanded social sphere, while selfish behavior can lead to an individual being shunned from the group.
David Rand, a post-doctoral fellow in Harvard’s Department of Psychology and a Lecturer in Human Evolutionary Biology, is the lead author of a new paper that examines social networks as ever-changing as opposed to a snapshot-in-time approach to research. Rand says that the new approach is the closest scientists have yet come to describing the way the planet’s six billion inhabitants interact on a daily basis.
“Although people sometimes do nasty things to each other, for the most part we are fantastically cooperative,” Rand says. “We do an amazing job of having thousands or even millions of people living in very close quarters in cities all over the world. In a functioning society, things like trade, friendship, even democracy itself require high levels of cooperation, and when everyone does it, you get good collective outcomes.”
Sociology and Medicine Professor and Pforzheimer House master Nicholas Christakis says, “As humans, we do two very special things: we re-shape the social world around us, and in so doing, we create a better place for ourselves by being nice to each other.”
The researchers followed 800 volunteers playing a game, which showed players re-wired their social networks in intriguing ways that helped both themselves and the group they were in. They were more willing to make new connections or maintain existing connections with those who acted generously, and break connections with those who behaved selfishly.
“Because people have control over who they are interacting with, people are more likely to form connections with people who are cooperative, and much more likely to break those links with people who are not,” Rand said. “Basically, what it boils down to is that you’d better be a nice guy, or else you’re going to get cut off.”
As a side note, the paper is one of the first to use Amazon’s Mechanical Turk as a method for recruiting participants, creating an online lab environment that could have a significant impact on future social science studies.