Origins of Network Acuity: Who Has an Ability to Efficiently Use Their Awareness of the Group Communication Network

Kyosuke Tanaka, Leslie DeChurch, Noshir Contractor


Milgram’s small-world experiment provided evidence for six degrees of separation, on average a chain of five contacts separated any two random people in the world. However, this was only true for those messages that reached the final destination. While, in theory, the small-world phenomenon is structurally common in social networks, empirical evidence shows that human navigation of small-world social networks is remarkably challenging. Messages often reach the intended destination via a longer path than expected, get enmeshed in loops, and/or often never reach it. This leads to painful consequences for organizations that require information routing to share (or retrieve) knowledge among their members. Extreme examples of these failures contributed to the loss of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. Based on literature on social capital and network perceptions, we argue that people vary in terms of their ability to efficiently use their contacts based on their understanding of the network. We call this ability network acuity. We hypothesize that an individual's positional (where one is in the network) and dispositional factors (who one is in terms of individual traits) impact his or her network acuity. We tested the impacts of positional and dispositional factors on network acuity using data collected from 6-DoS (Six Degrees of Separation), a network routing task developed by the Science of Networks in Communities (SONIC) research group at Northwestern University. It is based on Milgram’s small-world experiment. We collected data from 435 participants (57% female) who were in 25 networks. Each participant first completed a battery of self-report survey questions related to their traits (e.g., intelligence, self-monitoring, and personality) and social network. Then, each network engaged in a three-minute routing task where each participant could only route messages via three contacts within the group that they selected before the task started. They were instructed by the system to route messages to people with whom they were indirectly connected in this contact network at three degrees of separation. This required participants to make decisions about who, among their direct contacts, was more likely to route the message directly or indirectly to the final recipient. They repeated this network routing task five times, which enabled us to examine how they updated and adjusted their routing behavior over time. Results show that (a) those in the core or brokerage position had higher network acuity than did peripheral or non-bridge members, (b) neuroticism was positively associated with network acuity, (c) conscientiousness was negatively associated with network acuity. Further, individuals’ network positions impacted network acuity more than dispositional characteristics. The results of this experimental study illustrate not only the usefulness of the concept of network acuity to characterize individual’s navigability in the network but also advance our understanding of factors that explain variance in individuals' network acuity.

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