Power emerges from consensus in monkey social networks

Research on communication typically focuses on how individuals use signals to influence the behavior of receivers, thus primarily focusing on pairs of individuals. However, the role communication plays in the emergence of social structures is rarely studied. In a new paper from The American Naturalist, Santa Fe Institute researchers Jessica Flack and David Krakauer study how power structures arise from a status communication network in a monkey society. Power structure is important because it can influence the complexity of interactions among group members.

"When building a society, it is of utemost importance that signals be informative and any sources of ambiguity minimized," says Krakauer. "This requirement is reflected in the structure and function of communication networks. A goal of this research has been to study communication at a group level rather than the more traditional communication we associate with pairs."

Using information theory, the researchers show that power emerges through consensus. There is a high degree of consensus among group members that an individual is powerful if that individual has received multiple subordination signals from many individuals – in the case of pigtailed macaque monkeys, a silent bared-teeth display. On the other hand, there is little consensus if signals come from just a few individuals.

"Consensus about power is an important organizing principle in societies in which conflicts are complicated, often involving many group members at once," explains Krakauer. "In such cases, only individuals widely perceived as powerful will be able to terminate or reduce the severity of these conflicts. Power structure is critical to conflict management, which is in turn critical to social cohesion."

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Founded in 1867, The American Naturalist is one of the world's most renowned, peer-reviewed publications in ecology, evolution, and population and integrative biology research. AN emphasizes sophisticated methodologies and innovative theoretical syntheses--all in an effort to advance the knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles.

J.C. Flack and D.C. Krakauer, "Encoding power in communication networks." The American Naturalist 167:9.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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