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Computer simulation of group behaviour explains social issues

08 June 2012
Is it possible to predict a bank run, or perhaps even to prevent one? Or how can you encourage society to turn more and more to sustainable thinking? This is not just related to individual human behaviour, but in particular to how people influence one another. Researchers at the new University of Groningen GCSCS expertise centre are capable of modelling and explaining complex group dynamics. A biologist expert on herd behaviour will be the keynote speaker at the opening symposium on 15 June.

At the symposium organized by the Groningen Center for Social Complexity Studies (GCSCS), the speakers will be from a variety of disciplines, including economics, business studies, sociology, evolutionary studies, spatial sciences and artificial intelligence. (Symposium Programme here)

GCSCS Wander Jager
GCSCS Wander Jager

‘When people continually influence one another, unpredictable situations can sometimes result’, says Wander Jager, head of the GCSCS and a behavioural scientist at the Faculty of Economics and Business. ‘Such situations are often innocent or even desirable, such as developments in fashion or the rise of democratization movements. However, sometimes group behaviour develops in an undesirable direction, for instance towards rioting, extremism and the exhausting of natural resources. We are now able to better understand this and can thus influence the process.’

Large group of ‘little robots’

‘Where society is headed is a universal question, and unpredictability was always a problem in this regard’, says Jager. ‘Insights provided by behavioural science have thus far always been snapshots, of individuals. But what we can now do, thanks to information technology, is factor in human interaction and the time factor. You have to understand this as programming a bunch of little robots with theory on human behaviour. You then bring them together in a large group, or even a very large group, and observe what the result of the dynamics is.’

Street litter

The insights provided by the simulations are extremely useful to science, but certainly also to policymakers in government and in business. ‘If you understand the social dynamics of, for example, a public debate, a crowd or a consumer market, you can manipulate things and decide on the best moment to do so’, according to Jager. ‘When will populism evolve into violent extremism? And can this be prevented? You can also understand something like a litter problem better by using a simulation: what is the turning point for people with regard to street litter, the point where they no longer clean up but even add to the mess? With this knowledge, municipalities could optimize their sanitary services.’

Herd behaviour

Biologists specializing in herd or swarm behaviour make a valuable contribution to the GCSCS expertise centre. Jager: ‘Bee colonies, for instance, are extremely efficient. If a single bee discovers an interesting field of flowers, it is the interaction between colony members that results in the whole colony knowing about it in no time at all and heading straight for it. Of course bees are a great deal less complex than human beings, but you could still compare this to a bank run: the news of a threatening bank collapse spreads these days like wildfire via Twitter, resulting in people taking action and withdrawing their money.’

Note for the press

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Last modified:08 February 2018 10.24 a.m.

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