Relationship Liquidity

Social mobility enabled by innovations in technology, communication, and transportation has dramatically increased the liquidity of our relationships. Some of the hard-wired social traits that we inherited from our tribally-minded ancestors may be maladaptive and not properly suited to handle modern relationship dynamics.

Our attraction to new social opportunities was shaped when such opportunities were far more limited than they are today. Not unlike our attraction to sweet, fat, and salty foods, little selection pressure existed in the old world for evolving upper limits on our attractions for new social opportunities. But does a tendency to be intrigued by new social opportunities make us happier people in a world where access to new opportunities is virtually limitless?

Whereas our prehistoric tribal predecessors may have had access to a limited set of potential mates, friends, and colleagues, humans today can choose from a vast inventory of possible relationships in our mobile society and even meet distant partners through the internet. There are many beneficial aspects to rising number of related transactions. Access to more people, in life and in business, can increase the probability of finding better partners. On the other hand, rising relationship liquidity and transactions have resulted in higher quantity but the lower average quality of human relationships. Furthermore, the cost of forsaking existing relationships for new ones has declined. In just the last couple of generations alone, divorce rates and job change rates have skyrocketed.

From a Darwinian perspective, agency risk today is probably much higher than our social brains were evolved to detect since the human tendency to trust counterparties was wired during the tribal era when there was a high degree of genetic alignment. A significant portion of interactions today is with non-relative individuals. This misalignment of interests increases the incentives for exploitation, and such violators of trust have more opportunities to start new relationships than ever before, thereby reducing the cost of being detected.

Indeed, agency abuse is prevalent in modern life. Corporate and political leaders are accused of enriching themselves at the expense of shareholders and citizens. Doctors are criticized for offering treatments that enrich themselves at the expense of making the best decision for their patients. The weak commitment of agents to principles can be seen as an outcome of low alignment.

Aligning interests as much as possible in human relationships may be the best way to adjust for the Darwinian maladaptation of our social brain in this era of vast relationship liquidity.

Originally published in The Journal of the Palo Alto Institute on June 2012.