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Review of General Psychology

2012, Vol. 16, No. 2, 230 239

2012 American Psychological Association

1089-2680/12/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0027919

Wired to Connect: Evolutionary Psychology and Social Networks

Benjamin S. Crosier and Gregory D. Webster

Haley M. Dillon

University of Florida

State University of New York at New Paltz

Social networks dominate modern life. Social networks have always existed and have been around in
nonelectronic forms throughout the entirety of our species history. It is only recently that the Internet has
provided a venue for their electronic explosion. From a nonexistent phenomenon to an incessantly
repeated buzzword that permeates the media and is the topic of a major Hollywood film, electronic social
networks experience such success because human social behavior has been naturally selected to interface
in such a way. Genes and culture relentlessly encourage sociality, and network structure is the grand
output of countless interactions in which we engage, from winks to weddings. With the advent of
technology that promotes these connections, our innate propensity to connect at a large scale is changing
the way we live. From mundane communication to meeting the love of ones life to inciting political
revolutions, network ties are the conduits by which information and resources are spread. Understanding
the patterns and more importantly the whys of human connectedness can greatly impact quality of life
for the better. The present article reviews the extant literature of social networks and social network
analysis proper, the evolutionary foundation of social networks, the proposed psychological antecedents
of network composition, the transition from traditional to online networks and how the two modes differ,
the impact of social networks on popular culture, and the future of social networks.
Keywords: Social Network Analysis, evolutionary psychology, Facebook

A recent CNN article warns against the development of a

so-called popcorn brain (, 2011a). In a lighthearted
manner, the author cautions against a compulsive tendency to be
drawn into three modern ways of connecting: email, Facebook,
and Twitter. It is suggested that these novel venues for socializing
provide a hard to turn off desire to remain ever attached to an
electronic world that offers incessant stimulation. This is not only
an issue that plagues texting tweensit is not uncommon for
baby boomers to have accounts on social network sites and be
active bloggers, texters, Twitterers, Tumblrs, and chatters. Why
are these newfound avenues of communication so irresistible,
ubiquitous, and supposedly addicting? Are these behaviors actually a bad thing, or are we as a global society simply experiencing
the growing pains of cultural evolution?
Human sociality is ancient. Modern communication networks
provide an increasingly fertile ground for this to take place. Exchanges are no longer limited by geography. People can connect
visually, via audio, or by text instantly across the globe. Such
communication has become increasingly commonplace.
Computer-mediated interactions are no longer a luxury and are
nearly required to be a member of the modern world (just try to get
a high-paying job without being computer literate or without
having an email address.) Because of the hardwired human propensity to connect, electronic forums for doing so have exploded

and have become a steadfast facet of popular culture in the first

decade of the new millennium. It is no accident that Facebook,
Twitter, iReport, AIM, QQ, Tumblr, and the like are wildly successful. Engaging others and monitoring what transpires between
those in whom we are interested is too intriguing to ignore because
we emotionally crave to be connected.
Humans have an archaic tendency to seek nutrition with a high
caloric density because of efficient energy delivery, displaying a
preference for sweet and fatty foods. Arguably, the modern world
provides too many opportunities to access such items, contributing
to an obesity epidemic. In the same light, we have been built to
rely on each other because of the benefits such behavior endowed
upon our ancestors. This reliance is transacted by social communication and observation. Technology has given us tools that foster
sociality, and much like a junk food, most of us just cannot get
enough. Despite the fact that the popularity of MySpace was short
lived due to the success of alternative services, organic social
networks have existed for millennia and are here to stay. However,
these natural networks have now partially migrated onto the digital
landscape, a fact that is heavily represented in popular culture.

The Benefits of Living Socially

Sociality has been found to be the primary behavioral adaptation
for primates (Silk, 2001), both human and nonhuman species
included. Sociality is assumed to represent the dyadic relationship
between the advantages and disadvantages of living within close
proximity to other members of a species (Silk, 2001). Following
the assumption that most primates live in groups, it can be assumed
that the benefits of sociality outweigh the risks and disadvantages.
Ecological problems such as the gathering of resources and threat
of predation are the most frequently discussed advantages to group
living within primates in the literature (Silk, 2001). Wrangham

Benjamin S. Crosier and Gregory D. Webster, Department of Psychology, University of Florida; Haley M. Dillon, Department of Psychology,
State University of New York at New Paltz.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Benjamin
S. Crosier, Department of Psychology, Office 311N, University of Florida,
PO Box 112250, Gainesville, FL 32611-2250. E-mail: bencrosier@


(1980) suggested that primates tend to group together to defend

resources, which leads to between-groups competition. Where
there is between-groups competition, there is safety in numbers,
and a lone primate has very little chance of acquiring resources
when competing against larger numbers. Grouping has also been
suggested to evolve as a defense against predation (Silk, 2001)a
single individual is much more likely to fall victim to predation
than a large group. Groups are best able to defend against predation through the use of strategies such as mobbing and alarmcalling (Silk, 2001).
Socioecological models of sociality predict that ecological factors play the biggest part in the construction of social groups in
primates. However, a case can be made for predictors such as
demographic and social factors (Silk, 2001). This assumption of
nonecological factors as predictors may be a modern change,
rather than a stable predictor from the time of the environments of
evolutionary adaptation (EEA). Primate societies has been recognized by three specific components: social organization, social
structure, and mating systems (Kappeler & van Schaik, 2002).
Social organization is based on the size, sexual composition, and
spatiotemporal cohesion of a society. This categorization is often
used by researchers to define whether an animal is solitary or not.
Social structure refers merely to the pattern of social interactions
(which can efficiently be explored within the scope of networks),
and mating systems focuses on the genetic consequences of mating
activities (Kappeler & van Schaik, 2002). Primates are one of the
only mammals to live in groups with fluctuating size, sex ratio, and
temporal stability (Kappeler & van Schaik, 2002).
Many of the most important adaptive problems humans have
faced throughout evolutionary history are social in nature (Buss,
2004). Like primates, both living and ancestral, humans integrated
into groups in order to acquire the resources and protection that
group living provides. These same issues that contribute to ancestral primate group living have shaped the necessity for group living
in humans as well. Additionally, group living should provide
access to mates in a way that solitary living would not. In most
primitive societies, social groups were based almost entirely on
kinship (Alexander, 1977). Alexander proposed that humans were
literally forced together in order to protect themselves from
predation, to hunt in packs, and to promote the localization of
resources such as food or shelter.
Literature on the topic of human sociality largely skips over the
initial distal reason for group living among hominids, instead
directly jumping into selection, which takes place once group
living is already established. Group selectionthe concept that
adaptations evolved for the benefit of the groupis no new
concept. Views on its validity, however, have gone back and forth
between endorsing the idea and dismissing it. The recent resurgence of group or multilevel selection can be attributed to the
evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. In his very popular and
widely circulated Evolution for Everyone, Wilson (2007) advocates for the validity of group selection. Wilson proposes groups
become organisms when selection within groups is suppressed,
enabling selection between groups to become the primary evolutionary force (p. 139). Beyond group selection is a more accepted
notion of selection: inclusive fitness. Hamiltons theory of inclusive fitness has been widely accepted by the scientific community
since he published his theory in 1964. Inclusive fitness is the sum
of the individuals fitness (which has previously been referred to as


classical fitness) plus the effects of the individuals actions on the

reproductive success of his or her genetic relatives (Hamilton,
1964). Kin selection is a specific dimension of neo-Darwinism,
which assumes that organisms favor kina mother would show
more altruistic tendencies toward her daughter (or her sisters
daughter) than toward a stranger. Kin selection is affected directly
by the percent of shared genesa parent and a child share 50% of
their genes, while a grandparent and grandchild share only 25%
thus suggesting that parents would be more likely to protect their
young at the risk of their own lives than would grandparents
(Alexander, 1977).
Both group selection and kin selection are the bases from which
altruistic behaviors stem. A solitary living organism would not
display altruistic tendencies due to the limited possibility that the
altruism would negatively affect their reproductive success. Altruism is defined by two conditions: (1) incurring cost to the self and
(2) providing benefit to another individual. Social altruism has also
been discussed within group living: altruistic behavior may benefit
an individual by reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism suggests
that altruism toward nonrelatives may be reciprocated in the future
(Buss, 2004). There are two proposed types of reciprocal altruism:
upstream and downstream reciprocity. Upstream reciprocity occurs when the recipient of an altruistic act then performs an act of
altruism to a third party (Buss, 2004). Much like the popular
culture theory of pay it forward, if an individual does something
nice to a second individual, the second individual then does something nice for a third, and so on and so forth. Downstream reciprocity occurs when the performer of an altruistic act is more
likely to be the recipient of an altruistic act from a third party who
witnessed the original act of altruism (Buss, 2004).
For humans, the benefits of group living outweigh the costs, but
this does not imply that costs do not exist. In an early article, Buss
(1991) suggests that many of the costs related to group living stem
from the hierarchical nature of the human group. Humans must
cooperate within a group, which requires a social hierarchy, and in
order to maintain the hierarchy, social dominance must be displayed and fought for. As with many organisms living in groups,
status is a resource humans strive to attain. Achieving high status
may be the most beneficial way to survive, as it increases access
to reproductively viable mates, food, and resources, but due to a
desire to achieve status, intrasexual competition emerges. With
grouping comes intergroup competition, which refers to when
members of one group fight members of another group for resources (Bowles, 2006). As we have seen in every war in history,
the fight for status often leads to mortality, the ultimate fitness cost
for an organism. Novel ways to assess status from a structural
perspective will be discussed later, demonstrating the power of
networks when applied to existing theories.
Described in detail in the subsequent section, the theory of
networks and the methodology of social network analysis is a
potent way to assess any social arrangement, including
evolutionary-focused questions. Humans have evolved to be social
and modern culture has provided technological outlets that foster
this behavior onlineso much that it has become a massive facet
in popular culture. A network lens is a great way to approach
problems, both old and new. This framework allows the researcher
to take a step back and obtain an aerial view of a set of dyads.
Every exchange between two individuals is added up: each bond in
a network is a summation of iterated interaction. After summing up



all of these bonds, a complex yet elegant description of social life

emerges. This holistic picture of social life can inform current
problems within the social sciences. Humans have evolved to be
social, a propensity that is amplified by the digital age. Social
network analysis may be the best set of tools to approach macrolevel social questions, both on and offline.

History of Social Network Analysis

Social network analysis was initially formalized within the
frameworks of graph theory and network theory. Unfortunately, it
took centuries for these ideas to transfer from mathematics into the
social sciences. Before the more complex analytical techniques
that focus largely on mathematical descriptions structure existed,
Jacob Levy Moreno revolutionized the study of group behavior
with his introduction of sociometry and its accompanying method
of the sociograms (Moreno, 1934). Moreno would take a survey of
all members of a group, usually small in size, noting the affective
flow between all involved parties. He focused on the valence and
directionality of these relationships, concentrating on whether or
not interpersonal feelings were positive or negative and if they
were reciprocated or not. With this information, Moreno would
graphically represent social structure with nodes and ties, a rudimentary precursor of modern computationally driven methods.
Sociograms revealed what Moreno called depth structure, or the
true arrangement of a social system that went beyond the formally
defined structure provided by the organization (Moreno, 1934). It
was often the case that true social structure did not map well onto
intended structure, revealing the power of this new method.
Inspired by the work of Moreno, Kurt Lewin founded the Group
Dynamics Lab at MIT. Led by Lewin, who is widely considered to
be the father of social psychology, the Group Dynamics Lab
explicitly focused on network approaches to studying group behavior, applying a network outlook to social psychological questions. Despite early success, such methods fell by the wayside
(Hackman & Katz, 2010). Much important work had been done
investigating the links between the structure of small social groups,
communication within them, and the determinants of their ultimate
success or failure. However, because network approaches are
dependent on data that require a then formidable amount of processing power, progress had to be made outside of psychology
before further progress within psychology could take place. It was
not until the early 1980s after software and hardware revolutions
within computer science that social scientists were able to take full
advantage of network theory.
Coupled with the explosive growth of computing power and
sophistication of network-focused mathematical software such as
UCINET, statnet in R, ORA, EgoNet, InFlow, and Pajek, the
popularity of both the theory and methodology networks blossomed. This is true across the social sciences. Anthropology
(Wolfe, 1978), sociology (Scott, 1988), health (Cornwell, 2009),
biology (Fowler, Dawes, & Christakis, 2009), economics (Jackson,
2010), communication (Oberg & Walgenbach, 2008), and psychology (Vachon, 1982) have already benefitted from reaching beyond
the boundaries of academic disciplines to adopt novel methods.
Such interdisciplinary ventures are often rewarded with success, as
scientific progress is often driven by merging the theories and
practices of multiple fields (Garcia et al., 2011). Further ensuring
the popularity of such approaches, the tools of the modern digital

age record a large portion of our electronic behavior. These data

can be used to construct both personal and whole networks from
what is usually discarded information. Companies like eTelemetry
have exploited this circumstance and go so far as to offer products
such as the Metron EBA, which is a piece of hardware that
interfaces with an organizations existing IT infrastructure to automatically collect social network data in real time. This rich
information can be used to inform the fine-tuning of the social
structure within the organization. Finally, in light of our innate
propensity to socialize, new electronic settings for connecting
record the digital footprints of online behavior, for better or worse.
Scientists have only begun to tap into the tremendous amount of
psychological data that is provided by the use of electronic devices
(Mehl & Holleran, 2007). Even telecommunications networks
provide a remarkably insightful glimpse into human behavior,
(e.g., Onnela et al., 2007). Although different in important ways,
our online lives mirror our real lives. If one is extraverted at home,
at work and with their friends, they will most likely engage in
extraverted behavior online, despite the fact the true face-to-face
interaction is not possible. The gap between these domains is
rapidly shrinking, and much work needs to be done investigating
the areas where our traditional and digital existences overlap and

The Method of Social Network Analysis

Networks can be conceptualized from two vantages: that of the
whole network or from an egocentric perspective. Whole sociocentric approaches consider an entire population of individuals
bound by a concrete definition. All the members of an organization, residents of a housing project, or students who attend a school
are fitting examples of boundary definitions for a full network.
Getting data on whole networks can be a tiresome affair because
most groups tend to be quite large (Wasserman & Faust, 1994).
The number of possible connections between group members rises
exponentially as the size of the group increases. A researcher
might employ snowball sampling if it is too tedious to contact each
agent within the network directly, although this methodology is
usually quite effective for small- to medium-sized networks (Wasserman & Faust, 1994).
Alternatively, networks can be approached from an egocentric
perspective. Most networks tend to be incredibly large; if there is
no concrete meaningful boundary, it is impossible (at least currently) to collect data from the entire population. In light of this
difficulty, network scientists have adopted random sampling methods very similar to the traditional modus operandi of the social
sciences. A personal network from each member of the sample is
obtained by having the individual generate a list of alters, or
members of their own social network. This list is based off of a
prompt that is tailored to the research question at hand. After the
list is provided, the individual then evaluates the ties between each
alter, again based on a researcher-defined prompt. This can also be
done by extracting data directly from an online social network like
Facebook (e.g. Quercia, Lambiotte, Kosinski, Stillwell & Crowcroft, 2012). Usually, a list of 25 alters is sufficient, as structural
metrics tend to stabilize after this benchmark, (Wasserman &
Faust, 1994). If one were somehow able to obtain every egocentric
social network in the world, these smaller components could be
merged to form a worldwide whole network.


A descriptive set of trait-like metrics may be obtained from

these networks. Although both egocentric and whole networks
share some of the same measures, they each possess a unique set
of structural metrics that provide a mathematical description of the
social system that is being modeled. Metrics are calculated off a set
of nodes and ties, where each node represents a particular individual and each tie is a relationship between two nodes. Ties can
either be represented dichotomously or in a continuous fashion that
is indicative of strength, depending on the needs of the researcher
(i.e., either present or absent, or ranging from 0 to 5, with 0
representing no tie and 5 representing a very strong tie). It is
important to note that network structure is not assessed by means
of the statistical methods that are commonplace in the social
sciences. Instead, metrics are based on network theory, which does
not rely on the typical assumptions that are usually of concern in
the inferential statistics (e.g., normality and independence).
Of special importance to psychological and environmental variables are the number of cliques, components, and isolates along
with density, transitivity, brokerage, and measures of network
centrality, though this list is far from exhaustive. These measures
are relevant to the psychological aspect of living in groups because
they are formed by our behavior and have tangible consequences
in terms of how we socialize and our well-being. How we interact
with others, how these individuals respond to us in turn and how
our cultural and social environments alter these processes are the
forces that shape human social networks. The number of cliques,
components, and isolates capture how fragmented the network is
and how many groups of individuals cluster together. Cliques are
defined as a maximally complete subgraph, a set of vertices (a
vertex in this case is a person) that are all directly connected to
each other. A component is a set of directly or indirectly connected
vertices where there is never a full break in the paths between
people: if two groups are connected to themselves but have no
bridges between the two sets, then two components exist. An
isolate is a component of one, an individual who is not connected
to anybody. Calculated by obtaining a ratio of the number of
existing ties divided by number of possible ties, network density is
an overall measure of how connected the graph is. Directly related
to density, transitivity is a measure of network cohesion, and
brokerage is the extent to which an individual links distinct components. Finally, network centrality is a measure of social power.
It is the extent to which an individual connects different groups of
people, controlling the information and resource flow between
them. It is commonly calculated from three different approaches:
degree, closeness, and betweenness, although alternatives like
Bonacich and eigenvector exist that also take into account the
centrality of alters. The mean number of connections that everybody in that egocentric network has is degree centrality. Closeness
is the average length of the possible shortest paths between all
vertices. Similar to closeness, betweenness also concerns shortest
paths (also known as geodesic distance) but looks at the fraction of
shortest paths that must pass through ego to be connected. It is easy
to see that this oft-overlooked method can add to psychological
research in light of the fact that it provides new ways to get at
concrete variables that were previously hard to pin down, especially considering social power, which previously had to be measured in a roundabout way.
The field of social network analysis has produced many highimpact papers relevant to multiple domains of psychology, espe-


cially social approaches. Despite the fact that modern psychology

is slow to adopt the method of social network analysis, the two
approaches have a long, but sparse, history. The eminent social
psychologist Stanley Milgram was one of the first scientists to
conduct a true social network investigation outside of the laboratory. Milgrams famous small-world experiment (1967) sought to
establish the average path length between any two randomly
selected individuals in a population. Using a fabulously simplistic
design that utilized chain letters, Milgram demonstrated that
through an average of 5.5 of intermediary people, any two individuals could be connected no matter how geographically or
socially separated they may be.
As previously mentioned, Morenos early work on sociometry
has tremendously influenced both network and non-network focused approaches to human sociality, directly and indirectly
through his creation of the seminal journal, Sociometry. Sociograms, although as not sophisticated as computationally based
modern techniques, provided the first concrete visualizations of
human social networks (Moreno, 1934). Despite the fact that these
insights were mostly applied in psychodynamic therapy, they
directly influenced a large majority of Lewins investigation of
group dynamics, a research program that would literally lay the
foundation for all of social psychology.
It is difficult to exaggerate the impact that Kurt Lewin had on
psychology. The fact that a great deal of his work was inspired by
sociometry speaks to the power of understanding social networks.
While at MIT, Lewin and colleagues released a number of studies
that sought to explore social dynamics through the explicit manipulation of network ties in a laboratory setting. This group of
individuals was successful in illuminating the dynamics of large
scale communication by examining dyadic interaction. Unfortunately, starting in the 1960s, investigating group psychological
processes within the frame of networks became less popular and
After a long hiatus, the study of social networks was resurrected
by sociologists who embraced the rapidly accelerating power of
desktop computing. No longer were network scientists restricted to
the study of small groups. The power of even modest home
computers is sufficient to manipulate previously unwieldy data.

A Modern Perspective: The Psychological Antecedents

of Network Structure
As has been endlessly demonstrated within the field of psychology, a person tends to act the same way across his or her life span.
Although there are differences within the individual, such as an
increase in extraversion with age (Scollon & Diener, 2006) or how
the power of situation can color feelings and behavior (the focus of
social psychology), meaningful variability exists between people
(Buss & Hawley, 2011). How one behaves as a child will be
similar to how one behaves as an adult, and how this adult behaves
at the midpoint of their years will be largely similar to how they act
in the twilight of their life. Underlying these reliable behavioral
patterns are equally reliable psychological dispositions with personality (Taylor, Kluemper, & Mossholder, 2010) and behavioral
approach and behavioral inhibition systems (BIS/BAS) (Carver &
White, 1994) being of primary importance when considering the
link between traits and network topology. The Big Five model is
currently the best way to frame personality, and the scales borne



from this theory have been shown to be very effective in capturing

these concrete traits (Schmitt, Allik, Mccrae, & Benet-Martnez,
2007). These traits have a strong genetic component with heritabilities of 57% for openness, 49% for conscientiousness, 54% for
extraversion, 42% for agreeableness, and 48% for neuroticism,
with an average of 50% across all of the traits (Jang, Livesly, &
Vemon, 1996). Emotionality is a bit harder to pin down as a
construct, but this can be effectively done by looking at the
underlying systems that drive it. The BIS/BAS approach is a
parsimonious way to address the nebulous structure of this construct. It encapsulates emotionality, getting at the antecedent drives
behind the emotions that drive behavior. Behavior approach systems deal with the motivation to attain desired outcomes so as to
maximize positive emotional states, whereas behavioral inhibition
systems concern the avoidance of undesired outcomes, seeking to
minimize negative emotional states. The two systems can be
applied to nearly every domain of experience, the underlying
theory of the constructs fit especially well with social interaction
(Carver & White, 1994). Personality and BIS/BAS are linked:
behavioral systems endow individuals who are high on extraversion to be more prone to experience positive emotions (i.e., scoring
high on BAS) and those who are high in neuroticism to be more
disposed to experience negative emotions (i.e., scoring high on
BIS; Larsen & Ketelaar, 1991).
Behavioral systems and the components of the five-factor
model of personality are also shaped by social learning. As
implied by the average heritability of personality, 50% of
phenotypic variability in personality across people is due to
genetic variation, where the other half comes from environmental and other influences. Every individual receives a constant
stream of feedback regarding his or her behavior. There is much
variability in the ability to pick up on these signals, and one
usually knows how they are perceived with some degree of
accuracy (Ross, Anderson, & Campbell, 2010). If someone is
obnoxious and is constantly breaking social norms, he or she
will be faced with a barrage of negative feedback that generally
acts in a corrective fashion. Alternatively, if others are fond of
an individuals disposition, that individual will receive positive
feedback that further encourages such behavior. These psychological traits are strongly influenced by genes, although the
members of the local environment can alter the resultant behavioral consistencies. Extraversion, conscientiousness, openness, and agreeableness are often rewarded. In contrast, neuroticism is not socially desirable and is punished under most
circumstances (Robinson, Moeller, & Fetterman, 2010). In turn,
these social rewards and punishments reinforce behavioral inhibition and approach. Those who have reaped the benefits of
being outgoing and genial will further seek out social opportunities and those who have been socially reprimanded will
(hopefully) be more selective in the types of interactions that
they seek or avoid. Similar to the traits themselves, the effects
of social learning come to shape network structure.
Most literature searches regarding personality and social network structure return preliminarily encouraging results. Current
investigations do not look at structure beyond network size. There
are many structural metrics available, and few are explored in
relation to personality. Personality was shown to vary with the
presence of structural holes (Burt, Jannotta, & Mahoney, 1998)
and with network closure (Kalish & Robins, 2006), two closely

related topics (closure is the elimination of holes). The link between personality disorders and network metrics has also been
superficially explored (Clifton, Turkheimer, & Oltmanns, 2009).
Although not framed in terms of personality despite its overt
similarity to extraversion, propensity to connect with others (PCO)
was shown to be related to network size (Totterdell, Holman, &
Hukin, 2008). Presumably PCO would possess a great deal of
overlapping variance with extraversion. Encouragingly, a single
(locatable) article used the Big Five in conjunction with true social
network analysis was found (Wehrli, 2008), suggesting that extraversion promotes network growth. However, the scope of the
article was limited to growth alone and not the intricacies of
A prominent criticism of personality theory in general and the
Big Five in particular is the inefficacy of involved traits to predict
fine behavior at the situational level. It is a benefit then that social
network structure does not fall in this fine category. Network
structure can be conceptualized as a snapshot of all previous
interactions, relationships that were dictated by the personalities of
the people that were involved. The future of networks and personality is bright.

Traditional Versus Online Networks

Practically no research has been done on the differences between traditional offline and online social networks. It would be a
reasonable position to take that the structure of peoples online
social networks and the types of communication they engage in via
electronic media are relatively similar to their real life counterparts. After all, it is the same person engaging in these behaviors
in both scenarios. However, different situations and contexts encourage the differential expression of steadfast traits (Mischel,
Shoda, & Smith, 2004; Mischel & Shoda, 1995). Much as a young
man or woman would engage in different behavior while at a bar
after a number of cocktails as opposed to how they would act at a
job interview or in front of their grandmother, people may broadcast dissimilar information in online as opposed to face-to-face
social situations. Online spaces can either be completely anonymous or entirely identifiable, with each type of setting encouraging
a different set of behaviors. In venues where ones identity is
publically obvious, even searchable (e.g., Facebook), behavior can
be visible to all. Instead of being able to draw a line between a bar,
a job interview, and family, all of these domains exist simultaneously, and it would be wise to adopt a behavioral strategy that
pleases members of each one of these contexts. These domains
converge online and socially undesirable behavior becomes visible
to all, sometimes having tangible negative consequences, such as
a potential employer rejecting a job candidate after locating compromising images from the Internet of the applicant engaging in
unprofessional behavior.
As computer use grows across all demographic boundaries and
as we as a species become more dependent on global communication networks for our well-being, the distinction between our
real and online lives will become increasingly blurred. Behavior
within professional settings is becoming remarkably removed from
physical interaction with a large proportion of exchanges taking
place on the web. In recent decades, it was common for teens to
spend hours a week socializing on the phone. Now, the average
American teen sends an astonishing 3,339 text messages a month


(Pew Internet, 2010), a figure that is growing by the month and

creeping into older age groups. With all this gossiping, job hunting, connecting with distant family and friends, falling in love,
exchanging resources, offering emotional support, and so on happening electronically, is it still fair to say that communication
through such networks is inauthentic? Although different from
communicating in person, electronic communication is absolutely
genuine and cannot be downplayed, despite that fact that a majority of nonverbal signals are lost.
Beyond the simple fact that we are social to our roots, what
makes these online networks so intrinsically stimulating? The
major motivation behind interacting online is the opportunity to
engage directly in communication, and thus the exchange of resources, there is a strong secondary enticement of being able to
monitor the behavior of others that are of special interest. Offspring; past, current, or future romantic partners; friends; rivals;
and siblings all fit within this category. Each is either directly or
indirectly related to an individuals biological fitness. By observing the content of the communication between these special parties, it is possible to get a heads up regarding when to intervene
in a fitness-enhancing way. Offering support to family, be it
siblings, parents, or others, discouraging rivals, maintaining relationships with current sexual partners, and seeking new ones or
attending to old ones (e.g., discouraging or trying to rekindle), all
offer benefits to an individual. Consider anecdotally what one does
while logged on to an online network like Facebook. How much
time is spent typing, actually posting content to the site, and how
much time is spent sifting through the walls and pictures of
others? A vast majority is spent doing the latter. Never before has
this opportunity existed. For better or worse, online networks are
reducing privacy and making much more interpersonal interaction
public-interaction that is intoxicating to observers.
In addition to communicating directly with others and engaging
in interpersonal voyeurism, electronic networks are the perfect
place to express our somewhat narcissistic tendencies in whatever
fashion we prefer, indulging our collective oversharing graphomaniac bent. As evidenced by the surging popularity of blogging and
microblogging networks like Twitter and Tumblr, personal expression is a large incentive to be online. These forums allow for the
very public display of creativity, social and political positions,
intelligence, musical skill, and artistic talent. Most of these outlets
do not go beyond display in and of itself; they solely exist to serve
as a stage for the communication of these attractive attributes, all
of which have been shown to be fitness indicators (Miller, 2001).

Social Networks Are Popular Culture

Facebook is the reigning king of online social networks. The use
of the service is so pervasive that it would be impossible for what
happens within its domain to remain outside of popular culture.
With over 500 million users across the globe (about 8.5% of the
worlds population) that use the platform over 700 billion minutes
per month (Facebook, 2011), it is not hard to see that it is a
monolithic figure in Internet behavior. It is hard to imagine a new
technology being so widely adopted across the planet in just 7
years. The service was able to accomplish this by taking advantage
of existing physical infrastructure and offering a largely irresistible
free product that only consisted of code. It is not merely a huge
topic within popular culture (e.g., the sole topic of a major Hol-


lywood film): Facebook has become one of the largest electronic

venues for the actual transmission of cultural material. Most businesses, social causes, political movements, public figures, and
governments now attempt to harness the power of Facebook because of how much exposure it awards and how much influence it
offers. Dubbed the Facebook Election, the 2008 presidential
campaign was won by Barack Obama partly because of his willingness to dive into new public media. By utilizing the power of
marketing on Facebook and MySpace, Obama was able to land
over 70% of the youth vote, a feat that would not be accomplished
without the strategic command of online social networks (Johnson
& Perlmutter, 2010). Wise popular news media outlets have also
noticed and taken advantage of this by offering the opportunity to
link up with a particular site due to the fact that the stories they
report are often spread through the veins of massively connected
social media. Although Facebook is the current champion, multiple services offer different social products to users that have
become increasingly popular since the turn of the millennium.
From microblogging to online dating to hunting for jobs, oldfashioned human networks inspired by a biological predisposition
to be social have jumped online and have become a pillar of
contemporary global culture.

The Arab Spring and the Power of Social Media

Although sometimes written off by the old guard as a relatively
worthless mechanism only useful for marketing to the youth (e.g.,
during the 2008 election, McCain garnered much attention for
ignoring new outlets and focusing only on the more traditional TV
and radio), the amazing power of social media is showcased in the
revolutions of what is now called the Arab Spring. Largely fueled
by Facebook and Twitter, oppressive regimes in the Middle East
were toppled or disturbed with the help of online networks. From
protests to full blown revolutions and civil war, civil disobedience
fueled by social media touched Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq,
Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman,
Saudi, Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Western Sahara, and Yemen
in a chain reaction within a single season. In contrast to cases
where state-run media dominates as a way to control the spread of
information, online networks allow information to freely flow
rapidly between citizens, offering an alternative route by which to
organize and communicate. Losing the ability to censor ghastly
actions, some of these governments, realizing the power of new
media, sought to eliminate the problem at it source by cutting
access to the Internet with a takeover of Internet service providers.
Foreshadowed by the Persian Awakening of 2009 that saw worldwide protest of Iranian elections, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, in conjunction with the widespread use of video cameraequipped smartphones, helped document ruthless government
crackdowns, and aided in the crystallization of a common cause.
With sunlight being the best disinfectant, media spread through
social networks brought previously hidden abhorrent behavior on
the part of governments into the daylight for the whole world to
see. Bringing these horrors onto the global stage ultimately resulted in the death of Muammar Gaddafi, a dictator that ruthlessly
governed Libya for decades. Despite even the most grandiose of
expectations, this outcome was almost certainly off the radar of the
young people that developed the major modern social media and
networking sites. What started off as a way to link musicians and



college students just for fun has turned into a driving force behind
revolutions, even being credited for the massive prisoner exchange
between Israel and Palestine that centered on the soldier Gilad
Shalit (CNN, 2012), a transaction that was recently unfathomable.
The newfound focus on the worldwide obsession of social media
may seem trite when talking about the Tweets of starlets, but our
collective transition to online networks marks a profound change
in human sociality and echoes in popular culture.
The power of such outlets can also be seen in the rise of the
recent Occupy Wall Street movements that first spread across
the U.S.A. and then across the globe. These protests seek to voice
disagreement with the global distribution of wealth and with the
unfair and sometimes illegal practices of private financial firms.
What could have remained a few people in a New York City public
park exploded, becoming contagious and spreading to others who
harbored similar sentiments. The success of this movement is
owed to the power of social media. The dissemination of a message is not dependent upon a news anchor, journalist or editor
one simply needs to promote their cause with free social media. If
it has mass appeal, it will spread.

Success of Online Dating

Not all effects of social media are of such a heavy-duty nature
as revealing clandestine military behavior, as in the Wikileaks
scandal, or revolution within the Arab world; there is a mushy side
to online social networks. Online dating is now responsible for
about a fifth of all marriages in the United States, and such services
generate about 4 billion dollars in revenue worldwide (Chadwick,
2010). Lead by eHarmony and, online dating services
represent a major shift in how one seeks both short-term and
long-term partners. Craigslist has received notoriety for its Casual
Encounters (also receiving an astonishing amount of traffic).
There are now over 1,400 sites in the United States alone that aim
to link up lovers of all types. It has become the norm to use such
a social resourcesuch sites allow users to connect only with
others who are matched on important demographic or personality criteria in a safe environment, allowing daters to sift through
those they find unsuitable in a relatively unthreatening and anonymous fashion. These services go beyond merely tapping our need
to be social and capitalize on the most profound of human needs:
the attainment of sex and emotionally fulfilling pair bonds. How
could the lonely (or promiscuous) resist networks explicitly dedicated to satisfying our deepest emotional needs?
In the preinternet era, it was difficult to reach a formal agreement on what exactly the content of pop culture was at any given
time. This is not true today, as every phenomenon has a digital
footprint. By tracking the popularity of any given concept or entity
with data-driven methods, it is possible to make an argument on
whether or not it is a part of the collective conscious, regardless of
whether or not it is communicated by mass media. Search volume
index (SVI) is a good way to do this: if something is being
searched for on the web a great many times in comparison to
something that is not, it is popular. It is defined as the number of
searches for a particular keyword in a set amount of time (Kw)
divided by the total number of searches during that same interval
(T), or SVI Kw/T. By comparing the SVI for different keywords, it is possible to demonstrate whether the keyword is trending, being a current or past element of pop culture. Importantly,

regardless of the search term of interest, it is important to pick

appropriate baseline terms for comparison. These standards should
be prevalent enough to register (i.e., most every person would
know what it is, like a plane, dog, or car) and relatively stable over
time. This is crucial because the overall volume of the Internet
grows with time, and one may erroneously draw the conclusion
that content is becoming more prevalent when it is actually just
increasing in lock step with the World Wide Web itself. Using
Googles Insights for Search tool Google Trends, it is possible to
search for multiple keywords simultaneously and then export
longitudinal SVI data. Adopting the previously discussed baseline
terms and adding three top online social networks, it is easy to see
that Facebook has grown at an astounding rate over the last seven
years (see Figure 1).
Comparing Facebook to other popular culture content tells a
similar story. Exchanging the ever-popular dogs, cars and planes
for newer yet currently hot keywords like iPhone, Android,
and Craigslist evokes the same pattern. No matter what, Facebook is the undeniable winner. Internet users are searching for it
much more in comparison to any other term discussed, and this
difference is growing rapidly (see Figure 2).
These growth trends can also be explored statistically. By taking
the Log10 of terms of interest (sticking with all online pop culture
terms), Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, Twitter, Blog,
and Craigslist, and regressing it on the linear time variable (in
this case a week) it is possible to explore linear growth. Results of
this analysis are displayed in Table 1.
Each term reached statistical significance, signaling growth
beyond what would be expected from a random fluctuation. Furthermore, Facebook grew by approximately a factor of two compared to its next closest competitor, Twitter, and almost by a factor
of 10 compared to everything else. The it online social networking site that accounts for nearly 25% of all Internet traffic also
outpaces all rivals and traditional cultural components. It is safe to
say, at least in terms of Facebook, that online networks are a part
of popular culture, and this is because of the social benefits they
offer, advantages that are dictated by our ancestral past.

Figure 1. Comparing Facebook to other popular culture content tells a

similar story. Exchanging the ever-popular dogs, cars and planes for newer
yet currently hot keywords like iPhone, Android and Craigslist
evokes the same pattern. No matter what, Facebook is the undeniable
winner. Internet users are searching for it much more in comparison to any
other term discussed, and this difference is growing rapidly.


Figure 2. These growth trends can also be explored statistically. By

taking the Log10 of terms of interest (sticking with all online pop culture
terms), Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, Twitter, Blog and
Craigslist, and regressing it on the linear time variable (in this case a
week) it is possible to explore linear growth. Results of this analysis are
displayed in Table 1.

The Future of Networks, Evolution, and Psychology

To date, most inquiry in social network analysis downplays the
role of psychological attributes, assuming that when a macrolevel
perspective of behavior is taken, humans will all act in the same
basic fashion, that the nodes within a network are a homogenous
set manipulated by environmental influences alone. This assumption needs to change. Psychologists have a tremendous amount to
contribute in terms of individual differences and in terms of the
power of the situation in interpersonal interaction. More importantly, because it is reasonable to hypothesize that the position one
occupies in a network conveys differential adaptive benefits
(Lieberman, Hauert, & Nowak, 2005), evolutionary psychology
once again has the potential to step in and synthesize knowledge
across domains. Consider network centrality, a structural metric
that provides a concrete operational definition of social power.
Social power has not been explored in terms of social status as
conceptualized by evolutionary biology. Those studying sexual
selection have long known that the position an individual occupies
within the social hierarchy is strongly related to that individuals
ability to attract mates (Li & Kenrick, 2006). Within the human
species alone, elevated status is indicative of the ability to procure
resources, physical attractiveness, creativity, and intelligence (Li,
Bailey, Kenrick, & Linsenmeier, 2002; Miller, 2001) along with a
host of other fitness-related signals. Instead of using potentially
biased ratings of status or some other proxy (e.g., socioeconomic
status), it would be both a theoretical and methodological step in
the right direction to employ social network analysis in order to
obtain a more rigorous measure of social power, especially in light
of its importance within evolutionary psychology.
Merging the theory and methods of networks with modern
psychology is easy to do, and the benefits of doing so are growing
rapidly. Because of our shared affinity for online networks,
whether they are based on cell phone use, email, microblogging, or
a proper electronic forum like Facebook, the wealth of data that is
being accrued becomes richer by the moment. As evidenced by the
prevalence of social networks in popular culture, they have become a part of everyday life, a fact that is no surprise in light of


humans long history of ultrasociality. Following the growth trajectories of networks, their use is going to become more and more
widespread in terms of the demographics adopting them, the
mounting frequency of their use, the increasing number of purposes for which they are used and the fact that computer use and
Internet access are penetrating previously unimaginable places,
from the International Space Station to the African bush. Every
single person using these services leaves a digital record of their
behavior through time. Depending on how this information is
stored, an astounding amount of discoveries can be made if it is
harnessed properly. Social network analysis is the way to accomplish this.
Social network analysis can aid the evolutionary psychologist in
any research question that has some social component. The metrics
of brokerage and centrality provide an analog for social status, a
metric that is not necessarily confounded by the bias of self- and
other-report measures. This reduction in measurement error is a
major benefit when testing hypotheses related to status, a variable
that is central to mating and competition. Additionally, network
analysis can provide a method by which to trace the flow of
resources in a group, allowing researchers to test hypotheses that
involve theories ranging from inclusive fitness to parental investment. Most importantly, status clues us into the fact that fitness is
tied to network structure. The work of Nowak (2006) on evolutionary graph theory provides a mathematical framework to investigate the topology-fitness link. If evolved psychological traits
are the sculptors of network structure, this structure should be
directly related to biological fitness. It could even be the case that
some of these traits are passed on because of their relationships to
privileged social positions that are evolutionarily advantageous.
Consider extraversionsocial network analysis is the perfect tool
to test this personality traits net effect on a persons social
environment, with these environments being largely determinant
of that individuals evolutionary success. These are only a few of
a nearly infinite set of possible hypotheses. The field is wide open
for exploration.
The exchange between social network analysis and evolutionary
psychology is not a one way street. Evolutionary approaches
spurred a revolution within psychology and they are posed to do
the same for a field that explores human network structure with
theory that all to frequently does not even consider psychological
traits, let alone the evolved nature of these attributes. By framing
human networks in evolutionary theory, two major outcomes are

Table 1
Log10 Google Search Volume Index of Six Keywords Related to
Media, Social Networking, or Both, Regressed on Time (Weeks)







Note. Nweeks Number of weeks analyzed beginning with first non-zero


p .05.



concurrently possible: old questions will be answered, and new

ones will be generated. Evolution can help address these questions,
as it did by accounting for previous anomalies such as pregnancy
sickness. Much as the psychology of 20 years ago was full of
mutually exclusive theories that were not grounded in a functionally based metatheory, social network analysis is a highly interdisciplinary field that lacks a unifier across domains. Since every
agent in a social network possesses a psychology that was formed
by millions of years of natural selection, evolutionary psychology
can play this unifying role.

The connections between the members of a social species are
efficiently captured and explored within the theory and methodology of social networks and social network analysis. A significant
portion of network approaches to understanding human sociality
and group behavior was done by the founders of social psychology
and the method left the field and has only recently reemerged.
Social network analysis needs to undergo a full resurrection within
the social sciences in light of its tremendous ability to provide
newfound accuracy in defining social position and relationships.
Because of the innate human propensity to be social and live in
groups, new technology has encouraged the migration of our social
lives onto the World Wide Web. These new venues for socialization have engrossed the general population and mass media, ensuring that social networks are a major component of popular
culture. This is a fortunate circumstance. Combining the current
obsession with social media and the evolutionarily engrained desire for humans to connect at large scales, electronic networks
provide the social scientist of the technological age with a practically unimaginable amount of profoundly rich data. This transcendent data, which lies mostly untapped, holds the annals of global
sociality and is begging to be explored.

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Received February 8, 2012

Revision received February 8, 2012
Accepted February 22, 2012