I wrote recently about the way we tend to follow the opinions of those around us rather than looking for the best way to do things ourselves as individuals, with a recent study highlighting this apparent herd mentality.
So our social networks clearly matter. A recent study has set out to explore how influential our online social networks are in influencing our opinions.
“The way in which information, decisions, and behaviors spread through a network is a fundamental social phenomenon, and the past several decades have shown that it is a phenomenon that can be studied using rich mathematical models,” the researchers say. “At one level, these processes have elements in common with biological contagion, which is also inherently based on a mechanism of spread through a network. But at another level, the processes are different—the spread of behavior is based on individual decision-making, and as such, can exhibit richer and more complex behavior than the more direct mechanics of biological contagion.”
The research explores the influence our peers have on our decisions, and in particular whether this influence causes a cascade of decisions. They want to test whether the order of this cascade can create particularly favorable decisions.
“Often, cascading behavior in a social network is guided by an entity that wants to achieve a certain outcome,” they say. “For example, a company might be trying to guide the adoption of a product by word-of-mouth effects, or a political movement might be trying to guide the success of its message in a population.”
Cascades are well known to differ depending upon the order in which people make decisions. For instance, the consequences of early decisions, especially if made by influential people, can thus be amplified by the time they reach the rest of the network.
“Our work began from the realization that an organization trying to guide the success of a cascade sometimes has an interesting source of leverage under its control —- the timing by which it introduces the cascade to different parts of the network,” the researchers explain. “Consider for example how a company can choose to roll out a product at different times in different geographic areas or to different markets.”
The study found that the timing was crucial to the way decisions filtrated through the network. They found that when the timing was right, the cascade had a much better chance of spreading widely. Get the timing wrong however and it barely makes any headway at all.
The challenge thus becomes how to accurately predict what that timing is. It’s a topic that has largely been un-explored by research to date.
The researchers created an algorithm to test various schedules and the subsequent dissemination throughout the network, using a preference for one of a selection of products as their chosen decision.
From this they were able to determine both the preferred product of each individual, and the collective popularity of each product within that persons social network.
“Our work has identified these timing effects as an important potential strategy for catalyzing a cascade. But our analyses work with a relatively streamlined model of individual decision-making,” the researchers conclude. “It would be very interesting to think about how our results could be extended to handle richer models of behavior at the individual level. And with richer models, it would also be interesting to look at datasets of product adoption over time, to see if we can identify cases in which an effective timing strategy was used, and to extract general principles from this kind of data.”