Is Technology Driving Networking and Cooperation?

Are we more cooperative than our ancestors?

Posted Jan 27, 2012

It's early morning, and I've already checked my Facebook wall, looked at Twitter, and scanned the news online.  It's cliche to say that technology is changing our lives, but with all of these new ways to connect to family, friends, colleagues and the rest of the world, there's a common assumption that these new technologies must be dramatically altering our networks and relationships.

But this assumption may be wrong, according to a study just published in Nature by Coren L. Apicella, Frank W. Marlowe, James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis, "Social networks and cooperation in hurter-gatherers."  Apicella and colleagues studied the social networks of the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer population in Tanzania who are thought to live a life that is about as far removed from today's high technology society as can be imagined. 

In their study, Apicella and colleagues examined the social networks of the Hadza, and they found "...Hadza networks, like modernized networks, exhibit a characteristic degree distribution, greater degree assortativity, transitivity, reciprocity and homophily than would be expected from chance, and a decay with geographic distance."

In other words, the social networks of the Hadza look a lot like the social networks seen among populations who live in today's technologically-driven world.  That's right, the Hadza social networks have the same basic properties as are found in the social networks of people who use Facebook, Twitter, email, the Internet, mobile phones, and so on.

This is pretty interesting and important work for a number of reasons.  One of the primary implications of their work is that complex social networks appear to predate electronic technologies, and in fact may be interwoven with the development of other forms of cooperative behavior in human history.   Social scientists have long struggled to understand how cooperation develops in human interactions, and what factors drive people to cooperate or not in different types of situations.  This research provides some clues that some solutions to what has been called the "collective action problem" might lay in the complex webs of social interaction that humans may have participated in for much of our history.

This is provocative work, and it will be fascinating to see how people follow up on this research.  One idea would be to see a parallel study conducted with another population like the Hazda that is more connected to the global culture and digital technologies.  That would be a difficult study to mount, but it might allow for even more exact examination of the relationship between digital technology and social networks.

As a sidenote, about a year ago I published an interview with one of the authors of this paper, James Fowler, here in The Psychology of Political Debate --- "Genes and social networks:  new research links genes to friendship networks."  That might be of interest to readers who want to understand more about current research on social networks.