Proving the 80-year-old Structural Balance psychological Theory, researchers have found that individuals tend to avoid stress-causing relationships and prefer positive relationships in a society, resulting in more stable social networks.
Carried out at Imperial College London, the Medical University of Vienna and the Santa Fe Institute, the researchers examined relationships between 300,000 players in an online game called Pardus.
In this open-ended game, players act as spacecraft exploring a virtual universe, where they can make friends and enemies, and communicate, trade and fight with one another.
Scientists currently study data from people's electronic interactions, such as emails, mobile phones and online retail behaviour, to improve our understanding of human societies.
Structural Balance Theory suggests some networks of relationships are more stable than others in a society.
Specifically, the theory deals with positive and negative links between three individuals, where 'the friend of my enemy is my enemy' is more stable (and therefore more common) than 'the friend of my friend is my enemy'.
In today's study, information about interactions between players in the game is more detailed than that from other electronic sources, because it includes data on the types of relationship and whether the interactions are positive or negative.
This has enabled the authors of the study to show that positive relationships form stable networks in society, proving Structural Balance Theory for the first time.
"I find it fascinating to understand how we all interact with one another to form complex social networks. I think it is astounding that I'm this tiny point in such an enormous network of people. Our new study reveals in more detail than ever before the key ingredients that make these networks stable," said Dr Renaud Lambiotte, one of the authors of the study.
The authors found that in positive relationships, players are more likely to reciprocate actions and sentiments than in negative ones.
The study is published in PNAS.