Comment: The latest research in the field of big data and social physics reveals that the best way to secure ‘Yes’ might simply be to reveal a bit more of ourselves.
The idea of a ‘collective intelligence’ within societies and communities is not new. The origin of the word, ‘kith,’ in ‘kith and kin’ derives from the archaic English and Germanic words for knowledge. The same word that provides the root of ‘couth’ indicating a person of some sophistication and its more oft met antonym, ‘uncouth’.
Our ‘kith’ then is the circle of peers in our community from which we take much of our instruction when it comes to decision making and most of our learning. Taking advantage of this fact and some rather surprising research in the developing field of social physics may equip us with the gentle ‘nudge’ we need to bring the remaining undecideds on board the big blue bus.
It might surprise some to discover that our most powerful influencers are not our friends or significant others but rather our peers and quite often those that we do not engage with. Their mere presence is often enough to drive idea flow and shape opinion.
Studies conducted under the stewardship of Sandy Pentland at MIT by PhD students Wei Pan and Nadav Aharony investigated whether new ideas emerged from our own individual thoughts or whether they were picked up from the environment or community that surrounds us.
The team generated 1.5 million hours of automatically recorded data from a community using specially designed smart phones that recorded all calls, texts, emails, social media, app downloads and interpersonal interaction such as who they met, spent time with and enjoyed face to face contact with in order to attempt to predict what apps would be downloaded among a community of young families.
The researchers analysed hundreds of gigabytes of data in order to get a better picture of the decision making environment surrounding the test subjects and while the standard sociological result was observed – people with similar age, gender, religion etc – downloaded similar apps, this only provided about a 12 per cent accuracy in prediction of which apps they would download.
When the researchers then added the data including information on who they spent time with and who and what they observed in the environment that surrounded them, they were able to predict with four times greater accuracy. Pentland suggests that,
Our desires and preferences are mostly based on what our peer community agrees is valuable rather than on rational reflection based directly on our individual biological drives or inborn morals.
Pentland and his team conducted two further tests again showing that exposure to peer behaviour, directly and indirectly, not only predicted idea flow but suggested mere exposure had as much influence as IQ on academic performance and genes on behaviour.
The traditional neo-classical economic view of man as independent, rational utility maximisers belies the reality that man’s success owes the far greater debt to his social skills. Research on ‘bounded rationality’ by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman et al has shown that man is predictably irrational, more often than not relying on heuristics and snap judgements – both of which are often wrong – to navigate the trickiness of our lives.
These shortcuts prevail because while they are not wholly reliable, there are many good reasons to adopt this more immediate way of thinking for learning. It is simply more efficient to let others do the leg work then follow. Learning solely from one’s own experience is ineffective and often bloody painful. Pentland points to mathematical models of learning in complex environments which suggest that the most efficient model for learning involves spending ninety per cent of one’s time exploring – seeking out and copying seemingly successful behaviour – and the remaining ten per cent on personal experimentation and thinking.
Even our public morality is a series of social contracts that were arrived at by observation of the societal norms around us. We observe the actions and attitudes of our neighbours and peers and act accordingly. This forgoes the need for hours of deliberation, consultation and discussion before making a decision on every small matter. That we all do this so successfully is what effectively co-ordinates our societies. The idea of a collective intelligence. Thatcherism sought to glorify the individual and almost single-handedly destroyed the very idea of community, encouraging instead an intolerant, self-serving class of me-firsts that sees no value in idea flow, the exchanging of new ideas and collaboration for the common weal.
Sandy Pentland’s research suggests that the greatest ally in our battle to win ‘Aye’ might simply be our Twibbons and badges. To this end, I urge everyone who has not already done so to add a Twibbon to their profile presence today. To those who already have, convince one other person to do likewise.
If you’re voting ‘Yes’ why make us guess?
You can purchase badges and stickers here from as little as 0.35p.
This is not about proselytising. This is simply declaring our intent. Without fanfare or fervour. We have done the leg work. There is only one conclusion to be drawn. The more people displaying and declaring their intent, the more salient and available that choice will become to those who remain unsure.
The European and council election results continuing to drip-feed in from polling stations across the country have served as a welcome break from the disappointment of what is so far yet another Iranian summer – a little bit Sunni but mainly Shi’ite – but if the results have given us any insight, it is not that UKIP pose any great threat to democracy.
The threat to democracy remains the sixty odd per cent of those that did not bother to register the opinion they so often complain is not heard.
These are the disenfranchised, the apathetic and the downright angry and if they are persuaded to register their vote on September 18th, the chances are they will decide which way to cast their vote as they approach the booth. As monumental as their decision may be, many will make that decision on the basis of the heuristics available to them as they enter the polling station. As staggering as it may seem, this may simply be a sticker on a lamp post or a snatched snippet of conversation on the bus.
Many more still maintain that a vote for Scotland is a vote for Salmond to which I urge you respond with the wit of Mark Twain who reminded us that ‘politicians and diapers must be changed often and for the same reason’.
Those undecideds who voice such concerns are unlikely to be assuaged by a sticker in a window but to vast swathes of those still undecideds we must ensure that the surrounding environment in which such decisions are made reflects the positive affirmation of a collective intelligence that has already embraced the opportunity.
Buy Sandy Pentland’s book here.
Buy Andrew S. Loveland’s novel ‘The Sound of Abundance of Rain’, from the Kindle store here.