It’s (not) complicated: relationships may be simpler than they seem

It’s (not) complicated: relationships may be simpler than they seem

New Oxford University research has shed light on the complexities involved in forming social bonds, and suggests that the process is much simpler than first thought. 

Scientists from Oxford’s Department of Zoology worked in collaboration with their peers at the University of Exeter to assess social patterns across the animal kingdom. The findings, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggest that social ‘friend of-a-friend’ acquaintances are formed in much the same way as direct friendships, and governed by single simple behaviours, such as preferred group size and how often people like to meet-up. These ‘friend-of-a-friend’ relationships are known as ‘indirect social connections’, and show where each individual is positioned within the overall social network.

Previous studies have suggested that people can track the social network positions of others, and that indirect social connections may influence our health, wealth, and survival. These friend-of-a-friend links also appear to be important in the animal world, such as to the survival of dolphins in their early years of life, or the reproductive success of birds, monkeys and apes. Such findings have being suggested to provide evidence of individuals’ ability to assess the social connections of others and base their own behaviour on this.

However, Oxford’s research demonstrates that very simple mechanisms can underpin these relatively complicated social dynamics. Computer simulations were used to create social networks from virtual individuals that only differed according to a single simple behaviour, such as how often they interacted with their group members. The results showed that these simple tendencies created complex societies and affected the number and type of acquaintances formed, even more so than they determined individuals’ own friends. This suggests that certain findings regarding the wider social network positions of humans and other animals may not require any form of complex social behaviour or intelligence.

Lead author, Dr Josh Firth, said: ‘indirect social connections have been shown to be related to individuals’ genetics, traits, and different aspects of their lives, so it was interesting to see how such findings can actually arise within very simple social systems in which no complex strategies are in play.’

The study may also go some way to explaining how complex social structures and indirect social connections are shaped by natural selection.

Dr. Firth added: ‘I’m often asked how an animal’s own genetics could possibly determine the social connections of its associates and how these aspects of individuals’ social behaviour could ever be subject to natural selection.

‘This research provides an intuitive explanation for this. If an individual’s friends-of-friends connections are actually underpinned by a simple behaviour, then it may be this behaviour that is governed by their genetics. In this way, evolutionary forces could act on complex social network positions in a fairly straightforward manner.’