How might thinking purposefully about one’s social network differ from “networking” in the vernacular sense? How might structural inequality around social capital prove just as damaging as structural inequality around financial capital? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Marissa King. This present conversation focuses on King’s book Social Chemistry: Decoding the Patterns of Human Connection. King is a professor of Organizational Behavior at the Yale School of Management. Over the past 15 years, she has studied how people’s social networks evolve, what they look like, and why that matters. Her most recent line of work analyzes how to effectively harness networks to treat opioid-use disorders, and to address our national loneliness epidemic. King’s research has been featured in outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Atlantic, and on National Public Radio.
ANDY FITCH: Social Chemistry’s opening chapter states that “The strength and quality of your social connections and their arrangement profoundly affect your experience of the world, your emotions, and your personal and professional success.” So in terms of the stakes at play here, could you first flesh out this dynamic, two-way proposition that social structures both shape the life prospects we perceive, and fuel our personal capacities for finding fulfillment?
MARISSA KING: You can think about our networks as tracing the interactions we have on a day-to-day basis, from bumping into our neighbor on a walk to more enduring relationships with closest friends and family. All of those social interactions impact us on a variety of levels — from the most micro impressions (in the sense that these interactions truly do get under our skin), to the longer-term trajectories of our life and our health and our happiness. Most immediately, the type of interactions in which we find ourselves, and the quality of those interactions, affect all sorts of biomarkers of stress, for instance. And in the longer term, social interactions impact our sense of mental health, well-being, and overall loneliness.
Beyond their effect on our personal lives, our networks determine the arc of our professional lives. Our interactions impact the information we receive, and how we see the world. Again that has a significant influence on much longer-term trajectories. Networks shape how innovative or creative someone is, how likely they are to get a job, how likely they are to die on their own.
To start parsing then how thinking purposefully about one’s social networks differs from “networking” in the vernacular sense, could we take a familiar instrumentalist formulation (“People who use… personal contacts to find their next job spend less time searching and end up in higher-paying and more prestigious occupations”), and compare it to Social Chemistry’s more nuanced calculus (“But knowing more people… particularly… people… very similar to you… doesn’t create more value… it simply creates more work”)? Which most basic orientational pivots can redirect us from fetishizing the first point, to productively reflecting on the second point?
That gets at the heart of why I wrote this book. Like so many people, I had that first idea of networking when I began my career. People told me again and again that you need to get out there, and attend all of the professional mixers. You need to “network.” But now I know, from decades of studying how networks actually work, that this was misguided information. This emphasis on how many people you meet primarily comes from a misunderstanding of social relations.
We all have networks. Regardless of whether you can picture what your network looks like, you have a network. And I hope this book can help people start seeing more clearly the threads connecting their current set of relationships, and how these arrangements shape their whole life. Certainly there are instrumental aspects to all of this. If you try to find a new job, studies of networks do show better or worse ways of going about that. But I’d also emphasize more experiential components. Arguably, at the end of the day, our relationships mean more to us than any other part of our lives. That’s a big reason why so many people resist the idea of strategically analyzing these networks of relationships. Still I hope to show that, regardless of what you wish to achieve, you likely can find extraordinary strength in your existing set of relationships. And by better understanding those relationships, you can help yourself — but also help others.
So we might think of “networking” as somehow calculating or dirty. I mean, even when people describe me as someone who studies networking, even after decades, I still kind of cringe [Laughter] at this word. But I see real beauty in networks, and in how the sum of their parts amounts to so much more than just a set of individuals.
Yeah, for those of us who can’t help considering it somehow crass to proactively reflect on or cultivate one’s networks, could you outline how crucial it remains both for our species, and for civilizational thriving, to perpetually build and fortify social capital in these ways?
Sure. First, at a fundamental level, terrific research by Tiziana Casciaro, Francesca Gino, and Maryam Kouchaki found exactly that — for many of us, proactively cultivating one’s network feels immoral. To overcome this resistance, you need to get people past this very instrumentalist notion of angling for a new job lead or sales lead. That instrumentalist approach truly does evoke a sense of moral repulsion in a lot of people. They literally feel the need to wash away their sins. And this makes perfect sense if you think about it. Again, our social relationships remain in many ways the most sacred part of our lives, for good reason.
These researchers found that the easiest way to overcome this repulsion involves directing people to focus not on what they can get out of a relationship, but what they can give. That breeds empathy, and taking on others’ perspectives is one of our most powerful ways to overcome this moral aversion. For instance, particularly right now, with so many people starved for social connection and a sense of belonging, even just a conversation, even just being present with someone, can be such a gift. And then beyond these individual interactions, our whole society likewise needs a deeper sense of social connection, which really only comes through networks.
By contrast, if you think about times when we don’t actively cultivate or reinvigorate our social relationships, what happens? Most basically, many of our relationships break down, while others close in on themselves. When left unmanaged these relationships tend to produce dense clusters of like-minded people, stuck in various echo chambers. At a societal level, for example, we start seeing the kinds of intense polarization currently harming our own society, in which people can’t even have a basic conversation about many of today’s most pressing issues. We also see vast epidemics of loneliness, and the proliferation of diseases of despair like addiction and suicide.
Social Chemistry outlines three basic network structures. But before we sketch those structures, could you clarify why we shouldn’t think of them as rigid categorical types of social bonds or personal-character formations, so much as aspects of human relationality that each of us recombines in kaleidoscopic ways, at every stage of our evolving lives, as distinct challenges and opportunities arise — and often even varying from one moment to the next (as we’ve all experienced, say, when “loosening up” after awkward introductions at a party)?
About three decades ago, social scientists really began to map human networks in a concerted way. More recently, an incredible increase in the amount of available data has allowed us to consider more systematically what individual networks look like. I find it especially interesting that, whether we look at the data from 30 years ago, or at today’s social networks, we see these repeated patterns, coming from the fundamental fact that all humans, no matter where or at what stage in life, face a certain set of constraints. We all have some finite amount of time to allocate either to maintaining existing relationships, or to creating new ones. Those choices impact what our network signature looks like. We can only be in so many different places over a given period of time — so locations and physical spaces also play a big part in shaping our network. And because of these constraints, and the ways that our network evolves over our lives, social scientists can characterize three basic types: with conveners’ dense networks producing trust and reciprocity, with brokers’ network structures reaching a wider range of social circles (stimulating creativity and innovation), and with expansionists building extraordinarily large networks that provide power and influence.
But also, like you said, our networks aren’t fixed. They arise in part from whatever life stage we’ve reached. They tend to grow largest around age 25. Various life choices also have a huge impact on what our network signature looks like — both macro-level choices about whether to have children or which city we settle in, and less obvious choices like whether we live on a cul-de-sac or where we sit in an office. All of these decisions, whether made by you or made for you, factor into your network and its constant flux. And one of the most exciting pieces about understanding how networks operate is learning where you can actively reshape your network to help support whatever present needs you have.
In terms now of these three basic types, could we start with expansionists? And can I admit my own instinctive suspicion of these individuals with their frequent, long, loud, confident self-assertion? Why should I not think of expansionists as simply superficial or driven by pointless compulsion? What allows expansionists to thrive, and why do we all (again as a society, as a species) need expansionists?
Expansionists thrive by meeting new people and connecting on a moment-to-moment basis. They get personally excited about this opportunity to meet new people. But they also play an essential role in society, particularly when it comes to creating large-scale social change. Here we can start from the now familiar concept of six degrees of separation. For the whole world to truly connect in these terms, we need expansionists, through their constant interactions, to accelerate the diffusion of new ideas and information.
To give one concrete example of how this happens, I’ve been working recently with the New Haven health system, trying to help them make sure that vaccine resistance doesn’t impede our ability to really begin healing from COVID. Among frontline health-care workers, you might assume a quick uptake of the vaccine, but we actually see some resistance. And in that kind of situation, where you hope to catalyze widespread behavioral transformation, you look for expansionists. Even though many of us might feel skeptical in certain ways about someone we see as a “networker,” expansionists still have a lot of visibility, and a lot of influence. Whether or not we like these expansionists, many of us look up to them. For a broader social transformation to take hold, expansionists often need to get on board.
If I had to extract one sentence from your book, summing up all the social complexity surrounding expansionists, I would pick: “As cumulative advantage sets in, there becomes increasing opportunity for divergence between the underlying human characteristic that sets off popularity… likability… and popularity itself.” What broader societal dynamics do you see stemming from this paradoxical divergence of popularity and likability?
That disconnect happens pretty early on. At first for young children, a very strong connection exists between likability and status or popularity. But over time, and in many different domains, when people start reaching a position of high status, they also start feeling less empathetic. Their ability to see someone else’s perspective starts diminishing. Their ability to really connect with compassion diminishes. But just because of how status dynamics work (with someone who is visible tending to become more and more visible), a separation arises — with the people perceived as most popular, and having the most influence, often not liked much, and often coming across as disconnected from those around them.
People with high status self-report as being one of the loneliest groups in society. We’ve all heard accounts of celebrities, for example, bemoaning their desperate loneliness. We might respond with an eye roll, but something serious is happening here.
Social Chemistry gives the example of Shep Gordon, who maintains pretty well this balance between being popular while still being likable. As an agent or talent manager, Shep Gordon pulled all of these stage stunts, right? He had an intuitive sense that if you create visibility, then the dynamics of popularity can take off. In one of my favorite examples, for his first client Alice Cooper, Shep staged a promotional truck (bearing a big and revealing Alice Cooper photo) breaking down in Piccadilly Circus. This caused a significant real-life traffic jam, which got them a lot of free press, and really served as the launching point for Alice Cooper’s career.
Shep Gordon managed many, many famous people: everyone from Blondie to Pink Floyd. Shep became one of the most famous unfamous people in Hollywood — with the celebrity circuit certainly knowing his name. But at the same time, when faced with a life-threatening illness, he ended up in the hospital with only his assistant sitting beside him. That made him reflect on how, even as you get more visible, you grow less able to connect with the people around you. That points to hugely negative implications for expansionists themselves, but also to a broader lack of connection and understanding — again with many of us adopting the behavior of expansionists, and doing so from an early age. Just think of looking at pre-teenage kids and wondering: Why are you wearing that?
By contrast to expansionists, conveners establish dense, resilient networks producing a sense of security, certainty, and emotional fulfillment. Convening networks provide both species and group advantage through redundant communication systems conducive to sharing complex information, and to singling out “cheaters” or “freeloaders.” Convening networks also can prove constrictive, however, with homogeneity both a cause and an effect of convening formations. So why do we all (and some of us especially) both need, and need to remain slightly wary of, convening networks’ centripetal power?
Convening networks, in which your friends are also friends with each other, provide a lot of trust and reputational benefits. They create a great sense of belonging. Studies of our species development, and of what we’ve needed for society to evolve, suggest that, to get past a certain size, human groups had to gossip with one another. We needed to know whom we could trust, and who might violate norms. Convening networks do a good job providing these information benefits, allowing social circles to thrive without fear of somebody not having your back, or actively undermining the group.
Those particular benefits appeal especially to people who feel, for instance, a strong need for certainty. They dislike change. They don’t want to adjust plans at the last minute. Frank Flynn from Stanford has called this the “need for closure.” This predisposition leads some people to thrive best in convening networks. But also, in general, when we don’t actively manage our networks, they tend to take on this convening form.
People who have worked at the same company or lived in the same place for a long time tend to develop convening networks — in part just because, probabilistically, if you’re friends with Alan and you’re friends with Anna, the likelihood of Anna and Alan meeting at some point goes up. But also, psychologically, a friend of a friend tends to become our friend. When this doesn’t happen, certain social ties might start to dissolve from psychological strain.
A different downside arrives though when these tight networks start becoming echo chambers. We can’t get fresh information if we always talk to the same people. We don’t get new ideas, or new perspectives. And particularly if you take that isolated forum or echo chamber, and then add various power dynamics, you often get something that operates like a high-school clique. This group might ostracize certain kinds of members, and keep other people out altogether. That can have negative impacts both on these individuals and on society.
Yeah, Social Chemistry declares that “We gravitate toward people… similar to us, but we are most likely to benefit from difference.” So what are some proactive, constructive, creative ways for societies, for particular organizations, for purposeful individuals to prompt convening to take place not just around the immediate comforts of self-sameness?
In many ways, we seek out these structures because they seem safe. When we interact with people who look like us and talk like us, they feel familiar. Though in terms of benefits that can arise through more diversity, one great study looked at a broader range of possible points of similarity. So if you tell two people in an experiment that they have similar fingerprints, they’ll like each other more. But if you tell them they have something extraordinarily rare in common (that they don’t just have similar fingerprints, but both have special “type E” fingerprints), then they feel a much stronger bond.
For one takeaway, instead of trying to get people to see their common points of similarity (socio-demographic characteristics, or pretty obvious likes and dislikes), you can push them to move beyond just surface-level characteristics. They receive the benefit of comparability, but they also build trust more rapidly. They also often have fun making these deeper connections. When I’ve done this with groups and teams, people come up with all kinds of connections in a short amount of time, around something they wouldn’t otherwise have thought of — exotic pets, for example.
Brokers of course exemplify these benefits that come about when cultures, perspectives, and ideas commingle and recombine in novel, innovative, productive ways. As adaptable code-switchers, brokers can bring together various parties — in part by strategically tailoring their message to multiple audiences. Brokers face prospects though of coming across as aloof, incoherent, suspect. What might non-brokers doubt, or sometimes fail to appreciate, about how brokers operate?
Well if convening networks have a tendency to evolve into echo chambers, brokers straddle different social worlds — often to everybody’s benefit. Innovation, we know, mostly comes through recombination. A broker, for instance, might work with the firm’s engineering department, and also its sales department, and also play tennis on the weekend. By straddling different groups who normally might not talk to each other, this broker is well-positioned to be creative. Operating in this idea-import and -export business generates innovations benefitting the broker, but also whole organizations or communities or society.
One downside, as you mentioned, comes from people often treating brokers with suspicion. Brokers are big targets for reputation assassination. This makes their position difficult to maintain. Without self-reflection, or without recognizing the potential dangers, brokers can get themselves in a really uncomfortable position.
Somebody will see this broker as too agentic, as somehow Machiavellian. So while this brokerage position, particularly at mid-career, can become quite beneficial from a professional standpoint, women, for instance, face a backlash for being a broker. Stereotypes tell us that women should be compassionate, rather than agentic. A lot of great research shows this pressure on working women to come across as communal and empathetic. And empathetic brokers in fact don’t see these same reputational penalties. A trusted broker faces fewer drawbacks as well. But too often, if they fail to go out of their way to display empathy and to connect people (rather than keeping them apart), brokers face significant reputational penalties.
Brokers, particularly arbitraging brokers, can prove adept at benefiting from this intermediary role. But why and how might an institution seek to incentivize cooperative, rather than arbitraging, brokers?
Good question. Brokers are basically people who find themselves in a certain position, filling a hole between two different groups in society. So imagine I’m brokering between groups. I fit somewhere between the engineering department and the sales department. I know what’s happening in both, and I see the same new ideas starting to develop in each. Should I keep those two groups apart, and profit from their ideas by trying to unify these myself, as an arbitraging broker? Or should I bring the relevant parties together so that they can cooperate, without necessarily needing me as the go-between?
Research shows that the returns to the individual actually look better when keeping those two departments apart. But a broader organization really should want to bring these departments together. So by thinking about how to incentivize intergroup innovation or cooperation, we can shift how these relationships get structured, in order to unleash more creativity benefitting everyone — not just the individual broker.
Again, for just one extracted sentence summing up so much species paradox and civilizational/institutional folly, could you here unpack the striking formulation that: “Power makes it more difficult to identify brokerage opportunities, but simultaneously increases people’s willingness to broker”?
Sure. We do see this particularly negative effect when it comes to network perception. Gaining power in an organization corresponds to increased analytical thinking, and increased disconnect from what’s actually happening on the ground. People in power tend not to identify clearly the best opportunities for effective brokering. But people in power also feel empowered to act. So Helen and Anna’s boss might try to introduce them, and get them working together. But Helen and Anna might already have a much better way of working together. If you think about your own job, this probably happens all the time. People in charge tend to be pretty disconnected from those strong interpersonal relationships. That’s part of what makes people in power feel so lonely, and also makes them such terrible brokers.
So again, which incentive structures have you come across that best help to make those in power less detached in this way?
We actually don’t have many good examples. If I could answer that question I’d be writing that book [Laughter]. Humility helps. So does understanding biases. Powerful people are more likely to rely on stereotypes and biases when making decisions. We really do need to recognize just how common network biases are. We tend to think the popular people are more popular than they really are. We overestimate the likelihood that two people we know are themselves friends. Starting to understand and to check some of these common biases can help a lot.
But we also need, and thankfully have, many possible ways to encourage people in power to think like true brokers. Organizations might design networks allowing people who wouldn’t normally come together to come together. Or we know that brokers often arise because they’ve had unusual career paths. So designing systematic programs that allow brokers to develop, and that allow brokers to become leaders, can provide an effective way of accomplishing these organizational goals — rather than trying to go in and manipulate local-level social structure.
To take one quick step back now, to what you said about constrictive gender stereotypes, and particularly for readers who might see many of these behavioral traits we’ve discussed as primarily shaped by class and social norms, rather than by relational structures in some more personalized sense, how would you describe the role that external factors, and that internal traumas (with childhood poverty, say, providing clear examples of both), play in determining which of our dispositional tendencies get activated through which kinds of networks?
Right, our networks do in many ways get shaped by socio-demographic characteristics, especially race and class. The type of high school you attend probably has the biggest impact on what your network looks like. If and where you went to college has a similar effect. Personality matters too, but not nearly as much as we might think. For instance, extroversion would seem the most obvious predictor for expansionists, but expansionists actually don’t show much variance in this regard.
Race and class also have extraordinary implications for networks because of how these networks get shaped by the spaces we spend our time in. So here again structural inequality plays a big role. And if we don’t understand how networks operate, we also might miss how these networks tend to reinforce structural inequality. People who start with strong networks tend to have networks that get stronger and stronger. They benefit from cumulative advantage. So here again, unless we develop proactive interventions, allowing people without social capital to develop it, we as a society will never approach anything like true equality.
David Pedulla and Devah Pager did great research looking at how using networks to get a job varied by race. They found that utilizing a network to search for a job helped anyone. But African American job seekers had to network twice as hard to get this same outcome — again pointing to how even helpful networks can reinforce inequality. So when we think about how companies, for instance, can recruit a diverse range of hires at all levels, they might need to establish internships and programs allowing prospective employees to develop networks within the firm, and then give these employees additional opportunities to develop relationships that otherwise might not happen. We can’t just expect this all to work itself out on its own. Structural inequality around social capital can be just as severe and long-lasting as structural inequality around financial capital.
Then for comparing and contextualizing the merits of each network structure, how would you delineate some basic tradeoffs between the cognitive/emotional/time investments required for building and for making the most of expansionist or convening or brokering networks? And here could you give some examples of certain life opportunities and challenges calling for certain specific network structures?
We have a natural human tendency, when faced with a moment of uncertainty or turmoil, for our networks to become more convening — particularly for people without access to adequate resources. If you consider a large-scale natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina (or again in my own research during COVID), in times of crisis, most of us turn inward, which makes perfect sense. We need more social support.
But when you face these types of crises, you also need new information. Let’s say you have to look for a new job during COVID, or for new housing after Katrina. To get the most helpful information here, you need a much more expansive network, with connections to brokerage. That’s how you’ll get the necessary information. So our natural tendencies can in many ways backfire, and hold us back in certain challenging situations.
Again, any institutional interventions that have proved consistently effective here?
Some really interesting research done by Ned Smith, Tanya Menon, and Leigh Thompson found that the way out of this actually involves reaffirming one’s sense of self, and one’s sense of identity. From that place of reaffirming your own values, you feel more comfortable in many ways, and can overcome this common tendency to imagine your network as smaller than it actually is — and to focus inward, on only your closest connections. Again, this all boils down to having some sense of control. And one of the best ways to develop a sense of control, particularly during a time of uncertainty, is to reaffirm your own values and beliefs.
Maybe we should flesh out one idea you just brought up — of our networks being bigger and more enduring than we think they are.
Right, we certainly underestimate the size and strength of our network. If you even just try to imagine everyone you’ve bumped into over the past few years, you can’t keep track. And then if you begin thinking about not just the people you’re connected to, but the people they’re connected to, you really can start to sense what connects us basically to everyone across the globe.
But you also can sense the extraordinary power in your own existing network — particularly when you then start including the people you haven’t seen in two years or three years, or maybe five or 10 years. And what I find most amazing here is that the trust in those relationships doesn’t diminish over time. So when we consider the best ways to cultivate our networks, we often don’t need to prioritize meeting new people as much as we think. We should tap the value that already exists in our network.
And should we close here on Social Chemistry’s intriguing point that people on the other side also want to talk to us, and often just feel awkward about reaching out (like we do)?
Yes! It’s so true that the biggest point of resistance people have to reaching out to old friends and acquaintances and contacts comes from worrying it will feel awkward to get back in touch. So many of us ask ourselves: “What would we talk about?” But again and again, every time I’ve asked somebody to do this, the result is remarkable for everyone involved.
I mean, just imagine yourself on the receiving end, especially during this current moment. We all know how reaffirming and positive it feels to get an email or phone call from somebody we know and like, just reaching out with no particular agenda, just wanting to say hello. Now more than ever, so many of us feel starved for social interaction and social connection. So again, reaching out with no specific agenda is actually one of the most positive things we can do for each other right now. There is power in this simple act of connecting.