Army researchers: Study links how people form relationships

May 10, 2017

By T'Jae Gibson Ellis, ARL Public Affairs

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (May 8, 2017) -- There's a pretty good chance that you work with someone in your department, or even on your team, who despises team lunches and happy hours based on the social strain of where to sit or what to say. And there's a good chance this dislike stemmed from a previous event that left them feeling rejected.

Researchers at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the University of Pennsylvania teamed up on a new study that links social network structures, or how people find and create relationships in social contexts like work, school or church, to activity in the brain while a person feels included, or excluded from groups.

They looked at the brain's response to social exclusion as part of a study published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. With fMRI, these researchers investigated a set of interacting regions of the brain that helps us deliberate on the views of others. The study showed that people with sparse social networks, or those whose friends at church don't know friends from work or school, have the most synchronized brain activity, where brain regions were inactive and active with one another in a coordinated fashion like the instruments of a symphony.

"Studying the social aspects of team dynamics using brain imaging is new to us," said Dr. Javier O. Garcia, an ARL neuroscientist. He said he's interested in learning more about how Soldiers' performance is impacted by various social measures. For example, how does a Soldier's brain respond the first time he stands before his commanding general on a new assignment versus how he'd respond meeting up with friends for dinner?. This new study suggests that the Soldier may respond to these situations differently depending on the structure of his/her social network.

Instead of having to interview individuals  devoid of social contexts - about how they feel about various scenarios, the researchers have found a way to quantify the brain's response to social scenarios and most importantly a simple trait  one's social media network - that mediates this response.

The researchers also were able to access, with permission, the test subjects' Facebook data, giving them a snapshot of their friendship networks. In "dense" networks, close-knit friend groupings mean that many of a person's friends are also friends with each other. Talk to one friend, and another is likely to hear the story. In "Sparse" networks, a person's friends tend to be more far-flung, not knowing one another. If you talk to friend A, you would not expect friend B to know, said Dr. Jean Vettel, ARL senior neuroscientist and University of Pennsylvania visiting fellow.

"We can now objectively measure from someone's brain how much a social context influences their response, and we can now study how their perception of a situation leads to the sorts of decisions they make," Vettel said. "Will the Soldier accept an invitation to have cocktails with their new unit and bond over drinks?"

Take for example wristbands that now record heart rate data on people while exercising; people can quickly look at their device and determine if they've reached their optimal heart rate or if they need to adjust up or down. These Army scientists envision a future technology where physiological measurements from the brain could be used to provide additional information about their own response to a social context, perhaps helping them know how to adjust their behaviors to achieve desired outcomes.

"How can we really improve Soldier performance if we don't understand social networks and how they influence behavior?" asked Vettel. "It's exciting. We can see the effects of social network structures on brain responses as well as how our brains might shape our social networks."

"The significance of what we found is that people who are surrounded by different types of social networks use their brains differently," said co-author Prof. Emily Falk, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "This might indicate that they are thinking differently about how to navigate their social relationships under different circumstances."

These results capture an important milestone in the Army's research on developing technology to help our Soldier navigate social situations.

"Now that we can detect measurable differences in brain activity based on social context," Vettel said. "We can begin to research ways that we can use these differences to enhance performance" including scenarios, such as whether a Soldier will notice and adapt to social cues of distrust during a negotiation.

Garcia and Vettel are co-authors on Brain connectivity dynamics during social interaction reflect social network structure along with Ralf Schmaelzle, Matthew Brook O'Donnell, Christopher N. Cascio, Joseph Bayer, Danielle S. Bassett, and Emily B. Falk.

The U.S. Army Research Laboratory, currently celebrating 25 years of excellence in Army science and technology, is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to provide innovative research, development and engineering to produce capabilities that provide decisive overmatch to the Army against the complexities of the current and future operating environments in support of the joint warfighter and the nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.


Last Update / Reviewed: May 10, 2017