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Social Physics - Book Notes

Social physics is a quantitative social science that describes reliable mathematical connections between info and idea flow and people’s behaviour.

Social learning = process for turning ideas into action / habits and how this can be accelerated though social pressure.

Best ideas generated out of careful and continuous social exploration. Need the bric-a-brac to make connections. Synthesize out of the rubble.

Find new information but then bounce it off others to see what sticks or evolves

Wisdom of the crowd idea pooling works very well for estimation problems as long as there is no social interaction. It assumes everyone in the crowd acts independently. When they don’t and start to be influenced by others it goes wrong and leads to panics, bubbles and fads.

Experiment with day traders on e-toro network (social platform for traders) research showed that right balance and access to diverse ideas in their social network return on investment is around 30% better than individual traders.

Social learning only really works when there is access to different individual information if the sources are all the same you just end up with homogenous group think.

Exploration – the term Pentland uses to describe the search for other sources of information – hunter gathering type of role – go outside of the borders of your team and find new thoughts and ideas.

3 elements to keep in mind:

  • Social learning is critical, mimicking / copying what others do successfully combined with individual learning much more efficacious than individual learning alone.
  • Diversity very important. If everyone is using the same sources you simply get groupthink which can be a default setting in social learning.
  • Contrarians are important. Those who think and act differently to what their social learning would lead you to predict. They have knowledge and belief. Their challenge in sifting and combining diverse ideas also important.

 Mathematical modelling of learning in complex environments suggests best strategy is 90% effort on exploration, finding and copying what others are doing well and 10% in individual thinking and experimentation (synthesis of diverse sources of information)

We are collectively rational more than we are capable of being individually rational (as opposed to rationalizing due to the inherently biased manner in which we tend to select information in our decision-making)

Collective intelligence. Not a new idea, embedded in the English language eg phrase kith and kin, old English and German words for knowledge. Kith means a cohesive group with common beliefs and customs.

‘Our ancestors understood that our culture and the habits of our society are social contracts and that both depend primarily upon social learning.’

Engagement – ‘the process by which the ongoing network of exchanges between people changes their behaviour.

Turning shared ideas, habits into active cooperation – getting stuff done.

3 Factors:

  • Engagement requires interaction. The degree to which all members of a group or team are engaged with each other. What’s the network pattern? ‘The number of direct interactions is a very measure of the social pressure to adopt cooperative behaviours’, ie everyone needs to talk to everyone else.
  • Engagement requires cooperation. Alignment collaboration and active cooperation in pursuit of shared goals
  • Building trust. Expectation of future fair cooperative exchanges built upon a history of exchanges. More that goes in the more can come out.

Average team performers think teamwork is about doing their part. Star performers push everyone on the team toward joint ownership of goal setting, group commitments, activity, schedules and accomplishments.

Use of social network incentives rather than economic incentives in Pentland’s research to date are almost 4 times as effective as traditional individual incentives.

Measure of social connections around an incentive scheme proved an accurate predictor of behaviour change. A social physics approach to behaviour change is therefore to focus on on changing the connections between people rather than focus on the individual.

Digital social networks are capable of being harnessed to greatly expedite this approach.

Collective group intelligence is as important a factor in predicting group performance as IQ is for individual performance (Research published in ‘Science’ by; Woolley, Chabris, Hashmi, Malone & Pentland). The largest factor in predicting group intelligence ‘was the equality of conversational turn taking’. Groups with the most equitable turn taking are more collectively intelligent. Data showed that ‘the pattern of idea flow by itself was more important to group performance than all the other factors combined.’ Individual intelligence, personality, skill etc. Collective intelligence is largely independent of the intelligence of the individual participants.

Second factor was ‘social intelligence’ the ability to read each others social signals – a skill at which women tend to outperform men.

The process of developing idea flow is a critical requirement of effective leadership

Idea flow pattern in highest performing groups have 3 characteristics:

A large number of ideas with many short contributions rather than a few long ones.

Dense interactions. Continuous overlapping cycle between short contributions and <1 sec responsive comments, good, right, how, what etc which help to either validate challenge or build consensus

Diversity of ideas. Everyone contributing ideas and reactions with similar levels of turn taking throughout the group.

 Innovation is most important driver of long term performance.

Effective leaders develop high performance organisations the best are charismatic connectors - with a genuine interest in everyone and everything, this shapes and drives idea flow. This happens not just within but between teams. ‘Socially intelligent charismatic connectors are key to making organizations successful’.

Think of your job as a leader as getting everyone to talk to each other and connecting groups in order to improve idea flow. It will improve performance

Example of DARPA funded Red balloon challenge. To use social networks to find the precise location of 3 balloons located somewhere in the continental USA. MiT winning solution was not just to reward the individual who reported the location of the balloon but also those who recruited into the social network the person who eventually finds the balloon, and in a diminishing cascade the person who invited that person etc. $2000 for the balloon, $1000 for the direct recruiter, $500 for the next level recruiter and so on. God example of the use of a social network incentive to achieve a task which could be considered impossible or highly unlikely to succeed. It took them 8 hrs 52 mins 41 secs. Instant effective organization!

Second part of the book examines the implications in a much broader policy context for using social networks, big data etc for improved social functions such as public health, emergency and disaster response, traffic flows etc. Huge potential but will need to be balanced by privacy security and data control.