Why networks make people better - RSA

Why networks make people better


  • Social brain

As I thought they might, the ‘why don’t you stop talking about politics and go back to running the RSA’ comments have started appearing. I’m happy to oblige by sharing some fascinating research – sent to me by Dan Jones (thanks, Dan!) on the relationship between altruism and social capital.

My friend and former colleague, Peter Kyle (who was at the other end of the spectrum of Special Advisors to poor old Damian McBride), has kindly offered to send a link to my blog to his members at ACEVO so I’m also hoping this is of interest to third sector leaders

The researchHuman prosociality from an evolutionary perspective: variation and correlations at a city-wide scale by David Sloan Wilson, Daniel Tumminelli O’Brien and Artura Sesma -  explores what gives rise to what the authors call ‘prosociality’ (which they distinguish from altruism in that the former need not imply any self sacrifice while doing good). The research brings together social capital thinking with the perspectives of behavioural economics and evolutionary psychology to try to understand the context which makes pro-social behaviour a winning strategy for individuals and the human species.

In essence, the team from Binghamton University conclude that the stronger someone’s social networks the more likely they are to behave pro socially. The existence of these networks of support turns out to be more important even than income in determining people’s propensity to act benignly.

Like a lot of social research these findings confirm common sense while also having important implications. It is no surprise that people who feel they have support in their lives are most inclined to want to give back to society. But the research provides new research and a robust explanation at a number of levels (including game theory) for why supportive networks provide the context in which altruism makes sense.

I like the research because it forms a neat bridge between our Social Brain and our Connected Communities research projects. By understanding how we make decisions and how those decisions are governed by social incentives (both explicit and tacit) we can get to appreciate the best context to plant and cultivate the seeds of pro-sociability.

Some of the ways we form impressions about social support are fascinating. The researchers labelled neighbourhoods as socially supportive partly through a method in which addressed envelopes are dropped on the street; the proportion that is picked up and put through the right letter box is taken as a proxy for neighbourliness. It was found that people only had to be shown photographs of these more supportive neighbourhoods to become more inclined to make pro-social choices.

By explaining research like this to communities and by showing them existing patterns of networks (as we intend to in the Connected Communities project) we hope to motivate people to see the development of stronger social networks as a powerful good in itself.

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