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Why do interpersonal relationships differ between societies?

In some societies, it is relatively easy for people to form new relationships and terminate old ones. These could be friendships, family relationships or romantic relationships. Whereas in other societies, such relationships are largely fixed, stable and long-lasting, but with limited choice for individuals. A question that has long puzzled biologists and social scientists is why these differences exist in the first place, and whether they produce other kinds of differences in social behaviour.

In a recent study, a multi-national team of scientists spanning Asia, Europe, South America and Australasia, including researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, have surveyed nearly 17,000 people across 39 countries to help answer these questions. The results of the survey are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of the United States of America.

In the study, people were asked a series of questions designed to assess the ‘relational mobility’ of their societies. Relational mobility represents the level of freedom a society affords individuals to choose and dispose of interpersonal relationships based on personal preferences.

“Societies with low relational mobility have less flexible interpersonal relationships and networks; people form relationships based on circumstance rather than active choice. In these societies, relationships are more stable and guaranteed, but there are fewer opportunities to find new relationships or leave unsatisfying ones. In contrast, societies with high relational mobility give people choice and freedom to select and dispose of interpersonal relationships, which are based on mutual contract and are less guaranteed,” say the authors.

The survey tries to capture two factors that contribute to relational mobility. Firstly, a ‘meeting factor’ that assesses the opportunity for individuals to meet other people and form new relationships. Secondly, a ‘choice factor’ that captures the freedom of individuals to choose and leave relationships based on personal preference. The people surveyed were asked questions about other people around them rather than themselves, to reduce bias and to help capture societal rather than individual characteristics.

The study finds that societies that historically devoted more cropland to rice cultivation have lower relationship mobility compared to those that historically had more herding land. Generally, agricultural societies are sedentary and put people in interdependent relationships with reciprocal duties to each other. On the other hand, herders tend to have fewer stable long-term relationships owing to their nomadic lifestyle.

The researchers also find that societies that faced historical and ecological threats such as a harsh climate, prevalence of life-threatening pathogens or poverty tend to have lower relational mobility. This observation is thought to be because the basic human response to a threat is group cohesion, cooperation and insularity.

In addition to the causes of relational mobility, the researchers also investigate its consequences finding that it affects a host of other psychological and social behaviours. For instance, in societies with higher relational mobility, people have higher trust in strangers, higher self-esteem, higher levels of self-disclosure and intimacy towards a close friend or romantic partner and greater social support in the form of greater willingness to help a close friend facing a personal crisis.

“In a sense, relational mobility sets the ‘rules of the game’ for social relationships. When a society sets a particular level of relational mobility, it makes certain behaviors and psychological tendencies more or less adaptive,” say the authors. They argue that trust and self-esteem must be higher in relationally mobile societies to give people confidence to approach strangers. Another interesting consequence of high relational mobility is that friends and romantic partners tend to be more similar to each other as people tend to form interpersonal relationships with like-minded people and leave relationships if interests diverge.

However, the authors caution that correlation is not causation, “Ultimately, these results are correlational; they cannot prove that relational mobility causes these outcomes. Furthermore, reverse causality is also plausible—for example, trusting strangers could also make societies more relationally mobile. We can get more insight into cause and effect through experimental research”, they conclude.