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Social Networks Represented in Human Memory

In social networks, people act and react to form social relationships based on their perceived state of the social network. A collaborative study led by Matthew Breashears of Cornell University analyzes how people remember and perceive these networks. Social networks are remembered in small microstructures, called triads, as opposed to individual dyadic relationships. As Breashears et al. explains, the perceived “understanding of the social environment fundamentally constrains the choices we make (e.g., form or eliminate a tie), and we cannot act to produce, or avoid, a social situation that we cannot perceive” (114) Understanding how people encode social networks into their memories can explain why people prefer to build certain social structures by pursuing particular relationships over others.

Humans remember social networks in smaller, triadic components, which compress the network and are easier to remember. Individual dyad relationships are too memory-expensive. Every tie is crucial in a social network, because each tie could unify or separate larger social clusters, completely reshaping the network’s connectivity and how a person might act in response. Successfully navigating the social network is contingent on a person’s ability to remember and perceive the network accurately. However, social networks are unlikely to be able to be completely reduced to closed triads, and people adjust the way they remember these relationships, which also contain bridging/relationship-building opportunities. Furthermore, “humans may tend to encode social information primarily in terms of in-groups and out-groups, greatly simplifying problems of recall. Balance theory (Cartright and Harary, 1956), with its prediction that social systems will develop into pairs of mutually exclusive groups, is consistent with this notion” (117). Balance theory, which argues that large social networks tend towards equilibrium where two clusters with internally positive relationships (“in-groups”), but connected by negative relationships (forming two “out-groups”), is beneficial for peoples’ ability to remember social network structures.

Breashear’s study demonstrates how triadic closure and structural balance are not only a physical feature of social networks, but also how the Strong Triadic Closure Property and Balance Theory are a fundamental part of how people remember and exploit opportunities within a social network.



Brashears, Matthew E., and Eric Quintane. “The microstructures of network recall: How social networks are encoded and represented in human memory.”Social Networks 41 (2015): 113-126.


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September 2015