Social Cognition in a Digital World

In his excellent target article, “Networking Past and Present”, Dunbar argues that though contemporary personal networks are often geographically dispersed and not densely interconnected, the number of personal relationships individuals can maintain has not changed since our origins in tribal communities.  He further suggests that despite the hype surrounding Internet social networking sites (SNS’s), they have also not increased the number of real relationships the average person is able to maintain from around 150.  Instead, the online environment may have exacerbated the social problems that arise from living among strangers in urban environments, such as decreased interpersonal altruism, cyber-bullying, and the reluctance many feel towards enforcing moral norms. While this commentary will not dispute these main points, there are several additional factors to consider when examining the mismatch between the evolutionary constraints on the size of our social networks and the modern/urban environments in which many of us live today.

First, it has been argued that reputational concerns are one driving force that promotes prosocial behavior, and indeed there is experimental evidence supporting this idea (Di Cagno and Sciubba 2010).  This is likely one reason that cyber-bullying is prevalent—it is anonymous, so the reputational repercussions of such aggression are not enforceable, and therefore not a concern.  Why shouldn’t I knock a competitor down (emotionally) if there is no chance they will ever know it was me?  This behavior, though it is mean, could be the extension of an evolutionarily advantageous strategy.  Of course, this does not excuse such behavior; that type of justification would be committing the naturalistic fallacy.

On the other hand, it doesn’t seem that bullies, at least before adulthood, always suffer losses in reputation from their mean behavior.  On the contrary, aggressive behavior among young men is often rewarded with both resources and sexual benefits (Vaillancourt and Hymel 2006).  Though we might like to think that such behavior leads to less cooperation, it might actually lead less aggressive individuals to seek the friendship of bullies, if only to avoid being the target of their bullying.

Another reason SNS’s don’t necessarily enhance social engagement is that their primary communicative medium is terse writing.  While written words (even tersely written ones) can certainly convey loads of emotional content, what they lack are the subtle, mostly non-conscious auditory and kinetic cues that we receive and produce when we engage in face-to-face conversations.  These cues are essential pieces of the empathic process that takes place when we use our Theory of Mind (ToM) to try to understand the intentions, beliefs, desires, and emotions of others (Frith and Frith 2010).  Without these cues, our own senses of empathy may not be as engaged, and we may therefore again be more likely to commit written acts that violate social norms we would otherwise be constrained to uphold.  This is a risk of conducting important social interactions through texts, emails, or SNS posts.  We lose important communicative aspects of the social signal when we convert it from analog to digital.

Third, it is not in SNS’s that we should look for online versions of the densely interconnected social networks that characterized our evolutionary past.  SNS’s are full of mostly trivial interactions, and though they do enable us to connect with and keep track of individuals in our networks who are not geographically close, they are not typically used for relating anything intimate.  We should consider Internet communities in which anonymity is less of a factor, in which repeated interactions necessitate reciprocal altruism and the informal policing of social norms, and in which collective actions rely on the successful collaboration of interconnected networks of individuals.  This kind of community would make individuals accountable for their actions—they would risk the same sorts of social repercussions for misbehavior, including potential loss of group membership, which helped bond groups in the tribal settings of our ancestors.  These relationships could exist in Massive Multiplayer Online games, for example, and as Schiano et al. (2011) argue, engaging in collaboration in these venues does indeed serve to enhance real-life social relationships.

Finally, Dunbar considers possible ways to extend the size of social networks in the name of becoming a more engaged community.  While it does seem intuitive to imagine a grand project that could extend our natural sense of commitment to a group larger than 150 or 1500, perhaps it would be wiser to adhere to the constraints imposed by our cognitive capacity.  Instead of thinking of ways to make strangers feel more connected on a grand scale, why not think of ways to increase involvement and engagement on a local scale, in the communities in which we already live.  We know that participating in rituals, particularly those that involve synchronous music and movement can lead to group bonding (Wiltermuth and Heath 2009).  In fact, these are among the techniques that militaries and world religions recruit for their own extensions of group identity.  If we engaged in such rituals with our neighbors, then they wouldn’t be strangers any more.


Di Cagno, D., & Sciubba, E. (2010). Trust, trustworthiness and social networks: Playing a trust game when networks are formed in the lab. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 75: 156-167.

Frith, U., & Frith, C. (2010). The social brain: allowing humans to boldly go where no other species has been. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 365(1537): 165.

Schiano, D., Nardi, B., Debeauvais, T., Ducheneaut, N., Yee, N. (2011).  A New Look at the Social Landscape of World of Warcraft. Proceedings Foundations of Digital Games.

Vaillancourt, T. and Hymel, S. (2006). Aggression and social status: the moderating roles of sex and peer-valued characteristics. Aggressive Behavior, 32: 396–408.

Wiltermuth, S., & Heath, C. (2009). Synchrony and Cooperation. Psychological Science, 20(1): 1–5.

Published On: May 11, 2012

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