Brain power

The conflict between what’s good for individuals and groups

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

Humans are known for being really good at adapting to different situations. This is because we pass down knowledge and technology from one generation to the next.

A study1 from the University of Pennsylvania recently found something interesting. It turns out there’s a bit of a conflict between what’s good for individual people and what’s good for groups. For individuals, having fewer social connections can sometimes be better. But for groups, it’s often better to have lots of close social ties.

“Our capacity to accumulate cultural knowledge is part of what makes us human, and it’s what has enabled us to settle and live all over the globe,” the researchers explain. “In the real world, groups and individuals can benefit from either accumulating more traits or higher proficiency or both.”

The evolution of networks

The researchers developed a model to explore how social networks evolve alongside cumulative culture. They were particularly interested in understanding the benefits of specialist and generalist cultures for both individuals and groups. The model relied on the assumption for that people to learn socially as an individual, they must be exposed to skills and information a number of times.

“We were interested in complicated traits that a person would need to be exposed to multiple times in order to learn, for example, foraging tactics or making tools,” the researchers explain.

The results show that groups tend to benefit when they exist within a specialist culture as this ensures that everyone within the group is highly connected with one another.

“Social learning is more effective, and more culture accumulates in these specialist cultures where everyone becomes very proficient at the same handful of traits because there are no wasted learning opportunities,” the researchers say. “But there’s a conflict between individual-level incentives and what’s best for the group.”

Dense connections

The model found that when groups are closely connected, it makes sense for individuals to have fewer connections. This helps them focus and learn better. The researchers also saw that while being innovative can be good for individuals, too much innovation can harm the group.

This mismatch between what’s good for one person and what’s good for the whole group causes specialized cultures to break down. This leads to populations switching back and forth between generalist and specialist cultures.

“Cumulative culture becomes a public good because to maintain it groups have to have this connected network structure, but maintaining that network is individually costly,” the authors continue. “I do wonder if these cycling dynamics connect in some way to the archaeological phenomenon where you have a very vibrant culture that builds up and then suddenly collapses.”

The researchers also looked at how stable environments affect what people learn and how they behave in groups. They found that in stable places, people tend to specialize in certain skills, while in unpredictable places, they become more versatile. When things change quickly, it’s better for people to have fewer connections because they need to learn different things to survive.

This disagreement between what’s good for one person and what’s good for the group might explain why social rituals, like ceremonies, are common in many cultures. These rituals help keep social groups together. And the rules and traditions that encourage learning from others, even if they limit individual creativity, might be a result of this conflict between individual and group interests.

“Our results provide a novel hypothesis for the evolution of rituals and social norms that promote social connections,” the authors conclude. “Such rituals can enforce connectivity and cultural convergence, which might give the group an advantage over competing groups.”

Article source: The Conflict Between What’s Good For Individuals And Groups.


  1. Smolla, M., & Akçay, E. (2023). Pathways to cultural adaptation: the coevolution of cumulative culture and social networks. Evolutionary Human Sciences, 5, e26.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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