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How conventions spontaneously emerge

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The spread of ideas and behaviors is something that has gained a significant amount of attention over the last few years, not least amongst those who seek to influence organizational culture in some way.

A recent paper from the University of Pennsylvania set out to explore how social conventions can emerge, seemingly out of nowhere.

The researchers explored how large populations arrive at a consensus via a web based experiment, with the authors confident that their findings have wide ranging implications.

“Our study explains how certain ideas and behaviors can gain a foothold and, all of a sudden, emerge as big winners,” the authors say. “It is a common misconception that this process depends upon some kind of leader, or centralized media source, to coordinate a population. We show that it can depend on nothing more than the normal interactions of people in social networks.”

The experiment saw participants paired up and shown a photo of a human face, that they were asked to give a name.  If their partner gave the same name, they both won a small sum of money.  If they didn’t, they both lost a small sum, with the name from each player shared between them.

The players would then play another round with a different partner, with a total of 40 rounds played in total.

To mix things up, the researchers tinkered with the structure of the game throughout the 40 rounds.

For instance, at the start of the game, each player was positioned within a social network.  The network was kept hidden from each player however, as were the other players in the game.  The researchers wanted to test whether specific network types influenced the way consensus formed.

In all, they tested three distinct forms of network.

  1. The geographical network for instance, saw players typically interact with those closest to them.
  2. The small world network saw players play the game with only four others, albeit four players selected at random from the network
  3. The random mixing network saw players paired up with any number of players from throughout the network.

As the games progressed, a number of patterns appeared depending on which network people played within.

For instance, in the geographical and small world networks, it emerged that people would quickly coordinate behavior with their neighbors.  Alas however, they were not successful at settling on any one particular name.

In the random mixing network, the early rounds were typically quite chaotic, but after a while, the names quickly converged on a single one.

“Consensus spontaneously emerged from nothing,” the authors say. “At first it was chaos, everyone was saying different things and no one could coordinate, and then all of a sudden people who had never interacted with each other were all using the same words.”

The results matched the models created by the team to predict how things would unfold, and indeed the results were consistent regardless of the size of the player pool.  Thus, the authors believe the findings are relevant for social networks of all shapes and sizes.

It suggests that the process of consensus building can be altered if you can somehow influence how participants interact with one another.

“By making simple changes to a social network, the members of a population become more likely to spontaneously agree on a social norm,” the researchers say.

Of course, the study was conducted in quite a rarefied environment, and in the real world there are numerous forces acting to try and influence behavior.  The researchers hope to conduct follow up experiments whereby they can test how particular nodes in each network can influence outcomes.

“We would like to know how small the committed minority can be, yet still instigate widespread social change,” they conclude. “It’s a question that a lot of people would like to know the answer to.”

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