Just as humans follow complex social situations in deciding who to befriend or to abandon, a new study has suggested that animals also use the same level of sophistication in judging social configurations.
The study is the first in which researchers applied a long-standing theory in social psychology called “structural balance,” which is used to analyse human relationships, to an animal population to better understand the mechanisms that determine the structure of animal social groups.
Researchers analysed social bonds in behavioral data from a long-term study of the rock hyrax, a small mammal that lives in colonies across Africa and the Middle East.
Structural balance theory considers the positive or negative ties between three individuals, or triads, and suggests that “the friend of my enemy is my enemy” triangle is more stable and should be more common than “the friend of my friend is my enemy” triangle.
Another configuration, “the friend of my friend is my friend,” is considered to also be a stable configuration in the social network. The last possible triangle, “the enemy of my enemy is my enemy,” presages an unstable state, according to the theory.
Potential power of structural balance theory is its ability to predict patterns in the structure of the whole social network and also predict changes that occur over time, as unstable triads are expected to change to stable ones.
The study also found that contrary to classical structural balance theory, the “enemy of my enemy is my enemy” configuration was actually a stable configuration.