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Description: A defining characteristic of social complexity in Homo sapiens is the diversity of our relationships. We build connections of various types with a wide range of people in our families, schools, workplaces, neighbourhoods, and online communities. How do we make sense of such complex systems of human relationships? The basic structure and organization of relationships have long been studied in social sciences, but no consensus has been reached. Here, by using natural language processing, online surveys, laboratory cognitive tasks, and computational modelling on diverse modern cultures across the world (total n = 20,425) and ancient cultures across more than 3,000 years of history, we examined universality and cultural variability in the ways that people conceptualize relationships. We discovered a universal representational space for relationship concepts, comprised of five principal dimensions (formality, activeness, valence, exchange, equality) and three core categories (hostile, public and private relationships). The data also revealed rich cultural variations in relationship conceptualization across space and time and suggested that people’s understanding of relationships can vary as a function of religion and modernization. Our work reveals the fundamental cognitive constructs and cultural principles of human relationship knowledge and advances our understanding of human sociality.

License: CC-By Attribution 4.0 International


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