Choosing Friends Wisely? Rule-breakers Affect Social Networks

A new study suggests that rule-breakers deprive opportunities of other members in their groups and limit the potential to produce an effective social structure. The research performed by Dr Karlo Hock and Dr Nina H. Fefferman at the Rutgers The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick was published recently in the open access journal PLoS ONE.

Almost any group has some rules about how members of the group should behave. These rules usually help keep things flowing smoothly: sometimes helping to make individuals successful, sometimes helping make the group as a whole successful, and sometimes trying to do both at once. Of course, individuals do not always follow the rules, and this can affect how successful societies and individuals within those societies can expect to be.

choosing friends and rule breakers
As rule-breakers (blue) become more frequent, they sometimes affect the emergent organization of the system rather than the expected success of any particular individual. Image credit: adapted from Hock & Fefferman, PLoS ONE 6: e26652.

A rule-breaker can be selfish, undermining the common good to increase their own share of success (for example, through criminal or corrupt behaviors), but a rule-breaker can also help, making previously stable oppressive systems unstable and letting societies reorganize to a more favorable outcome for everyone (for example, through social or political movements). “Our work on organization of social networks looked at the depth and subtlety of impact that individual rule-breaking could have on groups and/or societies. We showed how sometimes you have to change the scale of observation in order to detect very important changes caused by having some members of society break the rules,” said Dr Hock, the corresponding author. 

The researchers confirmed that rule-breakers could cause really important changes in the success of individuals in the group (this was not surprising), but they also found that sometimes those changes could only be noticed by looking at the success of the group organization rather than success of the individuals. This means that, depending on the types of rules the group normally used, there are some societies in which rule-breakers can change the entire system without seeming at all different from anyone else.

“Even more importantly, we found that rule-breaking could alter the potential success of all of the individuals in the group before any particular individuals (that is, not just the rule-breakers) were noticeably affected,” according to Dr. Hock. Rather than having a direct impact on anyone in particular, rule-breakers can instead take away the opportunities from everyone in the group, preventing group members from realizing their potential as individuals as well as limiting the potential to produce an effective social structure. The results illustrate the power of individuals to affect social fabric of the society they live in – for better or for worse – through their own, sometimes very subtle, actions.

Science News Source: Karlo Hock, Nina H. Fefferman. Violating Social Norms when Choosing Friends: How Rule-Breakers Affect Social Networks. PLoS ONE 2011; 6(10): e26652. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026652.