The social networking game

Our lives are dominated by social interactions that seem to be getting ever thicker.  We make new friends in real world, follow people on Twitter, circle people on G+, and add “friends” to our Facebook pages, to name a few.  What governs how we behave in these and other social situations?  And why do we have so many “friends”?

Turns out, we’re nicer when we get to pick our friends.  As for why we’ve got so many, it’s probably because there’s relatively little risk to expanding our network online.  When the stakes are higher, people tend to limit their interactions to people who are nice to work with.

These findings come from social experiments using the classic strategy game, the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  The game is played over multiple rounds, and in each round players choose between cooperating and defecting.  There’s fallout from either decision, based on the player’s action and the actions of his associates.  The game can be mapped to social, business, political, evolutionary, and environmental situations.

In this particular version of the game, dubbed “The Social Networking Game” by the researchers, players accumulated points based on their network of associates.  Points were assigned as follows, tallied throughout the game and players paid out based on their score:

Cooperator-cooperator:  4 pts each

Cooperator-defector:  -1 point to the cooperator, 7 pts to the defector

Defector-defector:  1 pt each.

Defectors in a sea of collaborators stand to be victors, but if everyone behaves that way, no one gets rich.  Each game went on for 12 rounds.  Between rounds, people could forge new bonds or sever existing ones.  In general, people chose to expand their networks with other cooperators and tolerated the few defectors, but those few bad apples eventually spoiled the barrel.

So the researchers modified the reward system to really penalize the cooperators for keeping those defectors around:

Cooperator-cooperator:  4 pts each

Cooperator-defector:  -5 point to the cooperator, 7 pts to the defector

Defector-defector:  -1 pt each.

Now people formed tight cooperating networks for almost the entire game (when players know how many rounds are in the game, they switch to defecting at the end in a last-ditch points effort).  Furthermore, early defectors were swiftly booted from the circle and essentially ostracized.

So what does it all mean?

In casual social situations, when we get to choose our colleagues and prune our social networks, we tend to wind up in groups that are highly collaborative. Especially when there are serious consequences for acting selfishly.  Of course, we can’t always choose who we work with, and these findings apply to decision-making in a wide variety of interactions.  But in a day-to-day context, putting ourselves in situations that allow for updating our networks probably has some social benefit.  Online social networks are a paradigm of picking who your friends are and pruning your network.  It’s sort of this experiment on a grand scale.  Perhaps, then, part of social media’s attraction?

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Reference:  Cooperation and assortivity with dynamic partner updating.  J Wang, S Suri, DJ Watts.  PNAS, epub Aug 17th, 2012- open access publication.