The Social Suite OF Behaviour

Human psychology and social behaviour, much similar to the physical aspects of being human, are evolutionary. Human culture, friendship, relationships and even emotions such as love seem universally similar across cultures. Despite differences in race, gender, nationality or religion, humans are genetically predestined to behave in a particular manner.

Professor Nicholas A. Christakis’ Blueprint (2019), explores these similarities and shows how the evolutionary past is linked to the present.

The Blueprint Of Social behaviour

A universal blueprint for social behaviour is encoded in our genes. These instinctive genetics have helped form cultures and societies. As a child, Christakis and his brother were the only two Greek children on the Turkish Island of Büyükada. They quickly made friends with the local boys on the island, spent long afternoons playing, and even waged war on rival groups. Years later, Christakis reflected on these cross-cultural friendships. How did a group of children form close friendships despite having so many cultural and linguistic differences?

According to Christakis, his childhood friendships can be attributed to the mental manual of social skills, instincts and tendencies, which guide the behaviour of every human being. These universal traits are responsible for people across different cultures coming together to form groups as small as Turkish and Greek boys playing together, or huge societies and sovereigns of a million people.

Christakis called these traits the social suite of human behaviour, including tendencies to form friendships, to learn from and teach each other and even to love.

This social suite also forms a predisposition to favouritism. For example, in a study conducted in 2011, it was seen that children wearing red t-shits were favoured to mingle with and liked other children wearing the same colour. They even discriminated against those children wearing other colours. The researchers found prejudice was there even when the children were told that colours were given out randomly. This showed that humans have an affinity for ‘likeness’.

At the same time, humans are born with the ability to develop and recognize individual identities. Without this ability, there would be no discrimination, no preferences, and hence, the base of human social behaviour – love and friendships – would never exist.

Blueprint (2019) by Nicholas A. Christakis
Blueprint (2019) by Nicholas A. Christakis

How The Social Suite Works

Understanding how the social suite works, whether it is an inbuilt evolutionary adaptation or simply spontaneous reactions to situations, is difficult without conducting social experiments. However, such experiments would require raising individuals in an environment without any social set-up, without any pre-existing society, and would be life-long experiments, which would be ethically illegal.

However, studying shipwreck survivors can get us as close to understanding the working of the social suite.

Shipwreck survivors land on deserted islands that have no social infrastructure, or human establishments. In 1864, two ships, the Invercauld and the Grafton crashed on two different sides of a New Zealand island – Auckland Island – just off the coast of the mainland, not knowing that the other crew was there on the other side. The survival strategies of both crews were very different.

The survivors of the Grafton helped each other to survive. They ensured every man survived, worked together, and cooperated with each other in order to survive. They made a makeshift school and learnt from and taught each other while they waited to be rescued. All the Grafton survivors who were washed ashore survived.

The crew of the Invercauld on the other hand, left the weak men behind to die. They continually split up, deserted their sick, and were even known to eat one of their crew members. By the time they were rescued, only 3 members of 19 survivors of the crew remained alive.

As opposed to the crew of the Invercauld, the crew of the Grafton displayed and used the full social suite of behaviour. This proved that the social suite of behaviours is evolutionarily advantageous for survival. This blueprint of behaviours that are genetically universal to all humans helps in guiding behaviours in environments that are outside the norm.

The Blueprint Of Relationships, Monogamy And Love

Love is a universal human emotion. It is a deep emotional connection that transcends mere sexual attraction. However, according to experts, love for a sexual partner was in fact an evolutionary accident.

Originally, love as emotion was felt and expressed only towards one’s offspring. However, the emotional affinity, over time, extended to include mates and sexual partners too. Such evolution, where an adaptation is repurposed to another is called exaptation. The exaptation of human love from offspring to mates is similar to the evolution of flight amongst birds. It is believed that birds first grew feathers to keep their bodies warm. These feathers, later repurpose and evolved to be useful for flight.

The reason for the exaptation of love could have been to ensure that a family stayed together, to ensure the survival of an offspring, especially during pregnancy and child-rearing.

The human communities, earlier, were polygynous, and monogamy as a practice is only about two thousand years old. What made humans switch from polygyny to monogamy?

According to anthropologists, certain benefits and advantages of monogamy helped keep communities and societies safe. In polygyny, often men are left without wives. These men, leading unattached lives were less invested and leaned towards antisocial behaviour such as theft, violence and rape. This would destabilize a community and make it less productive. An example of this is seen in communities in China. Sex-selective abortions have led to a skewed gender ratio, and single men tend to lead more violent lives and die younger.

Monogamy on the other hand ensures that every man has a partner and that they lead longer attached, and more invested lives.

The Friendship Blueprint

Another universal human feature is friendship. The core values of friendship, namely, mutual aid, affection and trust, are seen in almost all human cultures. Acceptance of one’s vulnerabilities is another universal friendship trait. For instance, one would not mind getting teased by a friend, because deep down, one knows that the friend means no harm.

However, there are some traits of friendship that aren’t universal. For example, in 2005, when George W. Bush was seen holding hands with the Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, many Americans were surprised. However, his act was seen as a natural gesture of friendship by the Saudi Arabians.

In the United States, sharing personal information and regularly socializing are considered traits of a friendship. However, in some other regions, physical contact is a natural friendly gesture.

The definitions and traits of friendships differ from culture to culture. But why do humans engage in friendship at all?

Developing and maintaining friendships too have an evolutionary past. The early humans regularly faced threats such as illness, injury, lack of food, dangerous weather and predators. These threats were primarily threats to the survival of their offspring and people then needed to fall back on friends in their time of need. To some extent, this need exists even today, where one needs the help of genuine friends in times of need.

Techniques Of studying Cooperative Behaviour

The Amazon Mechanical Turk, a software system that enabled Amazon to hire thousands of part-time workers for small online tasks, was developed in 2005. It made recruitment and payroll according to work done easier. 

The Turk system, social scientists soon realized, was ideal to set up artificial communities of users and to study their responses – in groups as well as individually – for tasks set by researchers. It was an exciting opportunity to explore and study the social suite of behaviours, and how the users would display these universal behaviours online. They could even study how the new online environment prompted users to behave in new ways.

When Christakis and his team were studying cooperation – one of the most distinctive human traits – the results were illuminating.

In one of the experiments, 40 different social networks, with randomly placed users were created. Each user in every network had a unique set of neighbours. One individual from every network was given a sum of money and was told to either give it to a neighbour or keep it to themselves. If the individual decided to give the money to the neighbour, the sum would be doubled, leaving the individual significantly poorer than the neighbour.

They were also informed that in the next round, the neighbour could choose to reciprocate. In this round too,  the money would be doubled. Thus each network was given a choice to cooperate and make more money or to not cooperate and make lesser.

In some networks where everyone donated money to their neighbours, cooperation was seen as the norm. however, in networks where only one person kept all the money, defection was rife.

This experiment showed that while cooperation is a natural human behavioural trait, it can perish under certain conditions due to its fragile nature.

Social Tendencies In Other Species

Uncomfortable as it may seem, studies have shown that the animal’s humans experiment on and eat share many features of the social suite that humans have. Right from 1964, when the French surgeon Alain Carpentier successfully used valves transplanted from pigs in cardiovascular surgery, the world of science has been observing subtler similarities between animals and humans.

Evidence has shown that gorillas have their own language, rats can feel empathy and elephants have friendships among them. The study on South American capuchin monkeys showed that they have parallels with human behaviour. These primates, for example, exhibit the human trait of accepting vulnerability in front of their friends. They are known to put their fingers into other monkeys’ mouths, allowing them to gently bite down on their fingers.

These commonalities are attributed to evolutionary convergence, a process where different species arrive at the same evolutionary adaptations separately. Bats and birds for example separately evolved for flight. Apes, humans, and whales, for instance separately evolved to exhibit social traits such as social learning, cooperation and recognizing individual identities.

The reason for these similarities is attributed to the fact that these species have evolved in almost identical social environments.

Despite the differences between the physical environments, mammals such as elephants, whales, apes and humans evolved to survive. They needed to interact, live and grow in the presence of other members of the same species. Essentially, species that were able to socialize, exhibit behavioural traits such as cooperation, friendship and trust were able to adapt better to their environments and hence pass down their genes for social behaviours. Most social offsprings of these species were better able to survive. This natural selection, eventually, helped optimal social behaviour emerge. This optimal, survivalist behaviour is comprised of the social suite, developing separately at different times among different species all over the world.

How Culture And Genetics Helped Humans Tame Their Hostile Planet

Evolution and adaptation have enabled humans to live in extreme conditions from the freezing Arctic to the sweltering Amazon rainforests. This evolution and adaptation have been possible as genes have endowed humans to develop culture.

Evolutionarily, culture is ‘ the knowledge that is transmitted from one person to another, within a group, influencing individual behaviour.’ Moreover, culture itself is an evolutionary adaptation, wherein due to natural selection, genes have helped humans to create culture.

Genetics has made it possible for humans to have a long life, thus enabling humans to pass down information from generation to generation. Additionally, certain human psychological traits such as the tendency to mimic the behaviour of elders, and the desire for conformity between individuals, are tailor-made for culture to thrive.

Culture, akin to natural selection can evolve and adapt to the environment it needs to respond to. Great ideas emerge stronger than mediocre ones, becoming a part of the ongoing culture of a group, is similar to how genetic mutations can have survivalist advantages. Culture is, hence, critical for human survival.

Going back to the shipwreck survivors, many of these European adventurers perished due to a lack of cultural knowledge of their environments. Those who contacted the local human establishments in these unknown places had far better chances of survival. The natives had the knowledge of their specific environments, knew how to survive it and shared this invaluable information with those who were lost, increasing their chances of survival.


Humans, irrespective of their physical environments, share a set of social tendencies and traits known as the social suite of behaviours. Cooperation, the ability to learn, friendships and loving relationships, and have mutual trust are all part of this social suite.

While the social suite is intrinsic to adaptation and survival, the human aptitude for developing and preserving culture is equally important for the survival of the human species. Together, they form the blueprint of human social behaviour.