The Psychological Foundations of Social Networks
IN KEEPING WITH our goal to understand social networks “as if people mattered,” we begin our exploration of network theory with the psychological foundations of human social network behavior, a topic surprisingly ignored by many social network analysts. The foundations are both motivational and cognitive. They explain the urge to “network” and the limitations of human abilities to manage networks. Two kinds of basic human motivations respond to primary needs: first, to feel safe and second, to reach out. These correspond to two basic and complementary aspects of social networks: the connections between some of the elements of a network and the holes or nonconnections between other elements. One motivation is to stay within one’s social cocoon, for the connections between people and social units lead to feelings of safety, comfort, and support. Another motivation is to reach out and make connections where there were none. In addition to these primary motivations, there is one created by the network itself. It goes by various names such as envy, “status seeking,” or “keeping up with the Joneses.” Ego compares him/herself with others in comparable positions in the network and finds him/herself wanting. The dynamic is as old as Cain’s envy of his brother Abel (Genesis 4:4–5). As we have observed before, a process such as motivation is constrained by a network of others in an ever-recurring feedback cycle. Motivations for safety and for reaching out tend to shape networks as well as be dependent upon them. Status seeking, while having an effect on networks, especially depends on the shape of social networks, as the networks provide targets for envy.
An additional cognitive psychological process is critical. One’s network size, either in terms of outreach or making connections within one’s immediate social environment,