the social imperative

Dr. Robert Sapolski has been studying baboons for thirty years. While many researchers took for granted the hierarchical nature of baboon life, with dominant males attacking those next down the social ladder and then the process repeating itself down to infants and females, Sapolski did not. One thing his research showed was that the baboons on top were less stressed (lower stress hormones) and had lower blood pressure than those lower down the social ladder.

But then a most interesting event occurred with a certain troop that Sapolski was observing. The baboons started feeding from a garbage dump and many became infected with tuberculosis. Nearly half the males in the troop died, mostly the aggressive and non-social ones. Every alpha male was gone! As a result, the atmosphere of the troop changed and became much less aggressive and more social. Not only that, but any new males who joined the troop were discouraged from being aggressive and adopted more pro-social behaviours within six months.

In this more social and less hierarchical environment, the troop as a whole became healthier and less stressed. It is currently thriving. The fundamental lesson that Sopolski came back with was that “textbook social systems that are engraved in stone” can be changed in one single generation. There may be hope for the human race, it seems.

Recent research shows that evolution is on the side of those who cooperate.

“We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean. For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.”

The natural world is composed of complex systems and it makes sense that the best strategies for any population are ones that take complexity into account. This is a limitation of hierarchical organizational models. They cannot address large-scale levels of complexity, as explained in Complexity Rising, a 1997 paper on complexity profiles.

“In summary, the complexity of the collective behavior must be smaller than the complexity of the controlling individual. A group of individuals whose collective behavior is controlled by a single individual cannot behave in a more complex way than the individual who is exercising the control. Hierarchical control structures are symptomatic of collective behavior that is no more complex than one individual. Comparing an individual human being with the hierarchy as an entirety, the hierarchy amplifies the scale of the behavior of an individual, but does not increase its complexity.”

As Yaneer Bar-Yam explains in Complexity Rising, hierarchies have diminishing usefulness as complexity increases.

“At the point at which the collective complexity reaches the complexity of an individual, the process of complexity increase encounters the limitations of hierarchical structures. Hierarchical structures are not able to provide a higher complexity and must give way to structures that are dominated by lateral interactions.”


Image: Complexity Rising, UNESCO

Many of these lateral interactions are what we would call social relationships. They are outside the official hierarchy. As Verna Allee has noted, for complex environments, or ‘un order’, we need stronger networks and looser hierarchies. But most of our organizations are designed for ‘complicated order’ only. Or you could say that we need more lateral interactions.

Better social relationships (non-hierarchical and not based on the dominance of others) can make for healthier populations. In addition, networks are the only way our collective intelligence can be used to address increasing complexity. Becoming more social is not just a business driver but also a societal imperative.


Image: Verna Allee

8 Responses to “the social imperative”

  1. Alberto Manuel


    It’s useless to start you social journey if your social structure is not aligned with the process bandwidth played. But the process bandwidth should reflect the knowledge dimensions that should support the outcomes customers are willing to be achieved.

    This means that turning your company into the new cisco or google if your company mostly produces every time every day the very same result and need a centralised network to avoid variation.

    More about my research here:

  2. Jay Cross

    So essentially, we need to rely on others (via networks) to thrive above the midline of Verna’s chart, but we must become flexible in order to deal with the lefthand side. Dave Snowden implies that mistaking the left for the right is fatal, since they require different responses.

    Harold, is this a tipping point phenomenon or can organizations dismantle bureaucracy incrementally? What drives the lessening of top-down control to enable the flex to deal with the increasingly complex world?

  3. Curtis Ogden


    First of all, thank you for your rich and ongoing contributions. I find resonance and inspiration in many of your posts. Keep it up!

    I agree with what I hear you saying here, that networks are not simply a “so that” but an “as.” Given that society is structured by interconnections, building and “rewiring” networks can be a critical process for making change. I have expressed this in a post on our IISC site after hearing someone in philanthropy say that “the network experiment is over.” To me this both misses the point and is an expression of privilege that perhaps does not want to get the deeper potential here. The fact is that current systems are held together by networks of exchange that define what has value and who gets what value and under what terms. Shifting these patterns, by focusing on the number, nature, and pattern of connections, can yield fundamental change. More here –

    Also, if your ears are burning, I lift you up as a key thought leader in our work for social change at the Institute –

    With gratitude,



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