Tag Archives: social experiment

The next revolution in social policy

The reliably interesting Daniel Finkelstein has a good article on what he sees as a social psychology revolution developing via the collision of the two disciplines of evolutionary psychology and behavioural economics. From the article:

Yet the integration of the academic work on human behaviour into politics is still very much in its infancy. It is roughly now where economic understanding was in about 1978, before the Thatcher revolution. It is possible, indeed usual, to have entire policy debates in which the science of human behaviour doesn’t figure at all.

For instance, in the past two weeks we have had discussion of obesity and of knife crime. Social norms have hardly figured. If everybody thinks that everybody else is getting fat, then more people will put on weight. The campaigns designed to reduce obesity may be spreading it. Similarly the very idea that every young person is carrying a knife increases knife crime. The obvious route of making such behaviour seem odd and isolated appears not to have occurred to any major politician.

This does tie in with studies that crop up every few weeks concerning how humans co-operate and compete, and how our perceptions of risk and reward work.

One recent study concerns how mathematical models that include diversity of connectedness in social networks can show why altruism appears in societies. It’s an interesting article, even if a little hard to understand.

redpill_bluepillApropos the free-market intellectual revolutions of the eighties and the use (or overuse) of mathematical models in the study of human behaviour, check out Adam Curtis’ brilliant The Trap series of documentaries – they can be found on YouTube here.

The idea that we are entering a new era in which policy is created by politicians who have an empirical understanding of human nature is a compelling one. Doubtless it is full of potential for science fictional speculation.

[story from Physorg, article from The Times Online][image from Night Star Romanus on flickr]

Probing the six degrees of separation

Are you six degrees away from someone, or somewhat less?Discover has a good article this week about a couple of social scientists and their attempts to confirm Milgrim’s infamous ‘six degrees of separation’ experiment. Milgrim gave a number of people a letter and asked them to get it to a person they didn’t know directly though people they did know, then a person that person knew, etc. He found the chains averaged at 6 people, leading to the urban myth and the game ‘Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon’, in which people link up actors in a similar way (from personal experience, it almost always seems to go via Dan Ackroyd). Kevin Bacon even has a website called Six Degrees, linking celebrities and people with charitable organisations.

The scientists found that in both Milgrim and their follow-up studies, the six degrees often held up but people only completed their chain of connections a small amount of the time. They found that although often the six degree connection was about right when the link was completed, the likelihood of them reaching their target usually depended on the willingness or hostility of the people inbetween. For instance, for someone like Morgan Spurlock looking for Osama Bin Laden the last couple of chains are probably extremely resistant to taking part, so it’ll be hard to find him! I’d be interested to see if, as internet networks grow in popularity and sophistication, whether the number of degrees actually decreases in a hyper-connected future.

Discover also has a look at six physicists who could be considered ‘the next Einstein’. Personally I think Richard Feynman should hold that title and anyone now should be considered ‘the next Richard Feynman’ but the article is a nice brief overview of some leading lights in theoretical physics all the same.

[story via Discover, image via Wikipedia Commons]

Science cities: a social experiment

Photo:  www.sciam.com Why is Silicon Valley the way it is today?  Was it inevitable?  Was it something in the water, or the spirit of the people living there that turned it into the technology engine of the world?  More likely, for different reasons a few tech companies set up shop there, and as they grew and broke apart, more and more startups came into being, driving technology, aided by the close proximity to other companies.

That’s the concept Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis is hoping to exploit in his native Brazil.  Nicolelis hopes to create ‘science cities’ across the poorest regions of Brazil, that would act as the grain of sand in a pearl, bringing new businesses that would attract professionals, as well as schools that could train the local populace for research jobs.  The idea is that each city would be dedicated to a specific area of research.  Funding has accelerated, from both private donors and the Brazilian government.  A proof-of-concept neuroscience city was started in 2003, which contains research labs and will begin offering science and art classes to local children this year.

While its intriguing and ambitious, I’m rather skeptical that this will work.  We’re a long way off from being able to understand such complex social interactions, let alone being able to manipulate them.  On the other hand, I’d love to be proven wrong and see a string of science pearls spring up across Brazil.

(via SciTechDaily) (image from Scientific American website)