Five Types of Social Interactions in Humans


All human interaction falls into one of five categories: cooperation, conflict, social exchange, coercion and conformity, according Robert Nisbet, one of the early authors of social bond theory. Each of these five dynamics is at work in our lives every day. Encompassing behaviors such as caring for an elderly neighbor, convincing a child to eat their vegetables and making vacation decisions with a spouse, these concepts are at the heart of all interactions with others.

Helping and Teamwork

  • Cooperation is all about people coming together for a common goal. Each person’s contribution makes it possible to achieve something as a group that would be impossible or near impossible for an individual to achieve on their own. Teamwork and helping others are pro-social behaviors we’re hardwired through evolution to have, according to developmental psychologist and author Michael Tomasello. His studies have proven that children display cooperative, helpful behavior by the age of one. Cooperation is seen when couples negotiate household chores, when kids are hard at play in team sports, and when friends work around each others’ schedules to make time to be together.

Conquering the Competition

  • Conflict focuses on winning, defeating others and gaining the biggest reward or benefit. For example, students running for class president are engaged in a conflict in which they want to earn the title and status themselves and conquer their opponent. A less positive example might be having a running argument with your sister about who was mom’s favorite. Whether the conflict dimensions are positive or negative, too much of it diminishes our happiness, says social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt. Resolving conflicts is essential to our happiness, but conflict itself is also essential. Valuable for prompting social change, such as the Civil Rights movement, conflict is responsible for cultural improvement.

Giving and Receiving

  • The concept of social exchange means that people often give with the intention of receiving something in return. For example, someone might purchase a gift for another person because they have either already received a gift from them, or because they are anticipating that person will give them a gift. Social media offers another example, with people liking each other’s photos and comments reciprocally. On Twitter, people promise to follow back and re-tweet if you will follow them. In these interactions, what each person has to gain creates an "I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine" kind of relationship.

Persuading With a Threat

  • Some personal interactions are based on coercion, dominating another person and forcing them to behave a certain way. This can mean physical force or violence, but simple social pressure is often used to coerce others. Stating or implying a threat is what makes this more than simple persuasion. This can include criticism, intimidation, or withholding affection or cooperation, according to psychologist, Steven Stosny. Parents also use coercion with their children, such as threatening to take away a toy to prompt a child to clean up their room.Whatever methods are used, "The objective of coercive behavior is submission," writes Stosny.

Being One of the Gang

  • Conformity means behaving in the same way as others to gain their acceptance. Trying to fit in, to be one of the gang, is the motive in this interaction. Humans have a natural "tendency to imitate others in the group simply in order to be like them," asserts Tomasello. Adolescents wanting to be similar to their friends and classmates is a prime example. Essential to social life, conformity promotes strong communities, social structure and culture.

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