Tuesday, 19 May 2009

A physics of society?

Is it possible that we're not as in control as we think we are? We spend our entire teenage years convincing ourselves that we're individuals, but when it comes to our collective behaviour is that really true? From governments to economists to red top newspapers, everyone wants to understand why society is how it is. Physicists are no exception.

I recently finished reading Critical Mass by Philip Ball. Philip Ball is a chemist come physicist come science writer. From reading his book he sounds like a physicist at heart, perhaps I'm biased. The book is enormous and contains many of the things I'd like to write about here. There's statistical mechanics, game theory, networks and many other things that I won't review because plenty of other people have done that. I want to focus on the idea that there could be a physics for society. That our complex collective behaviour could be understood in the framework of statistical physics alongside more traditional methods in sociology and economics.

The problem with a physics of society is that it inevitably reduces us to simple units, completely throwing out our little subtleties, hopes and fears etc. This is a thought that is pretty distasteful to most people. It's up there with determinism for unpalatable ideas. But when you think about it it's not so bad. For most of our day to day life our choices are relatively restricted. In Britain and America if I want to vote, European elections aside, I'm realistically going to be choosing between two parties. In a market I'm buying or selling, and when I walk to work my routes are limited by obvious geographic constraints. It's for this reason that, in some circumstances, it is OK to draw a box around us and call us a yes or a no, up or down and so on.

We've already seen through universality that, sometimes, the underlying detail of a system is not the most important thing. As human beings we interact with our neighbours, our colleagues (and perhaps some random internet people). When our choices are limited, our interactions fairly short ranged, is it that ridiculous to think that some of the models we use every day in statistical physics could be applied to us? I think not.

Not too long ago the BBC (I think it was them, I can't find a link) had a programme about the credit crunch. They looked at complicated psychological reasons as to how over competitiveness, and I think something to do with chemicals in the brain, could cause an economic bubble to form. That people willingly fool themselves into believing that everything's okay. The trouble with this approach is it sees the end result of the complex interactions between traders as simply the behaviour of one trader - multiplied up. While I certainly don't want to rubbish the research behind this claim (I don't know where it is), we know that the behaviour of groups is different to the individual.

Physics has a much simpler explanation for bubbles forming in markets. It's simply based on the idea that people tend to follow what people around them are doing. Even if all the external signs are telling you that you should get out, the influence of people around you can often be much stronger. There are lots of models, and I'm going to go through some of them over the next month or so. The point in all of them is that people behave differently when they're around other people. When there's enough of us strange and interesting things can happen.

All of this is not to say that physicists know better than sociologists or psychologists (I suspect we know better than economists :-p ) but it does look like we should be sharing our knowledge better. The basic models of collective behaviour are simple enough for anyone to understand. They're not going to be exact but they can certainly enrich our understanding of the world around us.

I highly recommend Critical Mass. It's very well written and very thoughtful, well worth your time.

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