Social math influences us more than we might think.
The Internet can be a mixed blessing. Even as it connects us with people across the world, it also drowns us in a flood of new information and social interaction. Not only do we have to keep track of more friends and followers than ever before - some of us also have to contend with negative rumors, bad reviews and even online harassment. And whereas a cruel rumor might have circulated for a few weeks back in the physical world, hurtful words published on the Internet can stick around - in principle, at least - for as long as the human race keeps using computers.
This might be one reason why many of us feel safer if certain kinds of online interactions remain anonymous and automated. In fact, quite a lot of our online activity – from purchases and searches to advertisements and recommendations – seems to be powered more by mathematical formulas than by the kind of intuitive social connecting we do in the physical world. Our own social lives, we'd like to think, are shaped by “warm” personal instinct rather than "cold" mathematical judgment.
But in the neural networks of our brains, the line between fuzzy intuition and precise mathematics is a lot thinner than it appears. Your senses of sight and sound, for example, both depend on your neurons' ability to solve thousands of calculus problems in the blink of an eye – even if conscious calculation makes you dizzy.
What's more, the latest research is revealing that many of our “warmest” instincts and emotions also depend on precise neural math. In fact, one recent study found that our brains keep track of our friends (and enemies) not by memorizing each one, but by storing "nets" of mathematical rules that describe each person's relationship in terms of other people we know.
The journal Scientific Reports explains the details: Cornell University sociologist Matthew Brashears gathered a group of about 300 volunteers and assigned them to read a series of paragraphs describing variety of people. Some of the paragraphs included "kinship labels" like "mother" or "uncle," and others also included descriptions of "closed triads;" groups of three people who all know each other - and some paragraphs included neither form of identification for the people it described. What's more, the paragraphs including kinship labels or closed triads described twice as many people as the paragraphs without either type of label.
When Brashears tested his volunteers' memories after a break, he found that their recall for paragraphs that described people in kinships or closed triads was 50 percent stronger than their memory for people whose descriptions didn't include one of those labels - despite the fact that those paragraphs contained twice as many names as the others. What's interesting, though, is that people didn't do as well remembering individuals who had kinship ties but weren't involved in closed triads. In other words, the more the readers were able to fit the names they read into predictable patterns, the more accessible those names were when it came time to recall them.
Or, as Brashears puts it, "Our ability to remember and manage socials ties – and build bigger groups of people – has to do with coming up with new and interesting ways of compressing that information." The more we're able to memorize meaningful social ties rather than rote lists of the – let's face it, somewhat arbitrary – sounds we call "names," the more complex social networks we're able to store; and the more we're able to make inferences like, "If George is my friend and Susan is my friend, then Susan and George are likely to be friends." Even our unspoken intuitions, it seems, have their own sort of mathematical logic.
That's good news not just for sociologists, but for anyone who sometimes feels overwhelmed by the number of people with whom we interact digitally on a daily basis. We might not be able to delete every negative comment or review - but we can learn some of the rules that fuel online conflict and anticipate problems before they grow too big to manage. Not to mention, of course, that once we get the hang of making friends online, it gets easier to build a social network of whatever size we choose.
What's really amazing about all this is that whether we're managing a company's online reputation or just reaching out to people with whom we share interests, we're using brain systems that evolved to deal with small social groups on the African savannah. When it comes to expandability, there's no piece of hardware quite as versatile as the one you carry around inside your skull.