Positive Relationships Keep People Together

Understanding how social networks form and function

People would rather make friends than enemies, because of their natural inclination to socialize and interact in a positive way. The 80 year old psychological theory called the Structural Balance Theory is right and scientists finally proved it thanks to an online open-ended game.

The Structural Balance Theory says that some relationship networks are more stable and last longer than others in a society. This affirmation is based on possible links, positive or negative, between three individuals and the conclusion is that “the friend of my enemy is my enemy” is a more stable relationship than “the friend of my friend is my enemy”.

This study, conducted by the Imperial College London, the Medical University of Vienna and the Santa Fe Institute, and published yesterday in PNAS, analyzed interactions between 300,000 individuals playing Pardus online. This game allowed them to make friends or enemies, trade, communicate and fight one another, in a virtual reality they had to explore.

It is easier to study human interactions between people connected online. Scientists analyzed players' electronic networking, such as cell phones, emails and online retailing techniques. They managed to have data on the type of relationships between players and their positive or negative characteristics, creating thus a large scale behavioral pattern.

Six types of interactions were taken into consideration: communication, friendship, trade (positive interactions), hostility, punishment and aggression (negative interactions). For the first time, the Structural Balance Theory was proven unequivocally: positive interactions between people tend to form stable social networks. Dr Renaud Lambiotte from the Institute for Mathematical Sciences at Imperial College London said: “This may seem like an obvious finding, as we would all prefer to communicate more with people we like. However, nobody has shown the evidence for this theory on such a large scale before.”

Research also established that different type of links can interact and converge, while others can exclude one another. In the game, friends interacted with each other and had a good communication, while enemies did not even trade.

Dr Lambiotte stated: “I find it fascinating to understand how we all interact with one another to form complex social networks. I think it is astounding that I’m this tiny point in such an enormous network of people. Our new study reveals in more detail than ever before the key ingredients that make these networks stable.”

Scientists' new goal now is to establish patterns in mobile phone communication and also to try and find out the way that different areas of the brain interact.

This research is the result of a collaboration between Dr Renaud Lambiotte at Imperial College London, Michael Szell at the Medical University of Vienna and Stefan Thurner at the Santa Fe Institute and was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Austrian Science Fund Fonds zur Förderung der wissenschaftlichen Forschung P 19132.

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