119. Science in the real world: predicting society

Posted on July 30, 2016

If you think that science, and scientific thinking, have little to do with the rough-and-tumble of the real world, think again – and take a look at this wonderful paper by a group of psychologists and mathematicians from the Cornell-Princeton-Yale triangle (http://arxiv.org/pdf/1507.01561.pdf) that I recently had occasion to revisit.

As with many scientific papers, it will probably put you off at first glance. Like the plain front door of a high-class brothel, even the title “Evolutionary game dynamics of controlled and automatic decision-making” gives little indication of the exciting contents hidden within.

But exciting they are. Because the authors take the well-known psychological fact that we make some of our decisions automatically and with little effort, while we take more care and deliberate over others, and look to see what might happen when a whole population behaves in this way.

And guess what. Under some circumstances it turns out that our history follows a similar game of swings and roundabouts. For some periods, we might behave as a society in a considered, orderly way, thinking forward and planning for the future. Then, suddenly, the population can switch to intellectual anarchy, making quick and sometimes silly decisions with little or no regard for the future.

According to the authors’ analysis, the switch from one state to the other (and back again) is most likely to happen in a relatively poor world where there is substantial competition.

I leave it to you, the reader, to decide what state we are in now, and whether we have much chance of getting out of it. I know what I think!


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