One aspect of the financial crisis that hasn’t been examined is the role of complex social networks and relationships of trust. There are some reasons to think that networks beyond a certain size and with certain sorts of internal structure might lead to a breakdown in trust.

As I mentioned in my post, last week I attended a fascinating conference on the social brain and social networks. Two of the talks at the conference dealt with the issue of social network size and composition in terms of the evolved parametrics of the human brain (an organ designed to compute complex social relationships). The basic point was that there are limits beyond which networks become unmanageable and a dramatic drop-off in emotional closeness occurs. The upper limit is thought to be about 150. But there are also limits on the internal structure of the network. As far as I understand it, although ratios vary according to the propensity to communicate and extroversion of an individual (etc.), it appears that the best functioning networks are ones which scale up at a ratio of 3 from a core ‘inner’ network of close friends and/or family.

A common pattern (again, as far as I understand things) is an inner network of, say, 5, connected to a network of about 15, connected to a network of 45 and an outer network of over 100 (the scaling is not perfectly manifested in the network composition). As we travel from inner to outer networks several relationship characteristics reduce in intensity and capacity:

1) emotional closeness, including relationships like trust;

2) ‘theory of mind’ (what we understand about how someone thinks, their beliefs etc., what we think they are likely to do in given situations);

3) time spent with individuals.

For primates, emotional closeness and theory of mind (if that is not a misnomer) require immense amounts of time to be built up through grooming rituals – some primates only need to spend 2% of daylight hours on grooming for hygiene reasons but in fact spend 20%. It is estimated that humans would need to spend 40% of daylight time on grooming to sustain the complexity of the social networks they move within. But humans have language and vastly enhanced memories thus reducing the contact time necessary for emotional closeness and adequate theory of mind to develop and be sustained (think of the emotional closeness a well-chosen word can generate and how long that closeness can last).

The jury is out on what governs the size and scaling ratios of human social networks, but the influencing factors are likely to be a combination of the three relationship characteristics listed above.

My thought is this. Perhaps the technological, global and corporate world of finance allows individuals to hold together networks of such size that little is known about what anyone in the network is likely to do, believe or think. Moreover, perhaps the scaling ratios are skewed, so that emotional closeness is lost (the inner networks are too big perhaps, or the overall network size too large). And perhaps because of all this too little time is spent on developing trusting relationships.

These factors together could contribute to a kind of trust developing which lacks the normal interpersonal knowledge, closeness and time commitment. So perhaps the corporate world should consider the evolved parametrics of the social brain when organising its institutional structures?

About these ads