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Dr Andrea Baronchelli
Science & Technology Series: Research Spotlight

Explaining spontaneous social conventions

Dr Andrea Baronchelli co-authors a new study into the sudden emergence of social norms.
by John Stevenson (Senior Communications Officer)

City Lecturer in Mathematics, Dr Andrea Baronchelli, has co-authored a new study with University of Pennsylvania social scientist Dr Damon Centola, which provides a scientific explanation for the sudden and spontaneous emergence of social conventions. These conventions, or norms - such as wearing neck ties or shaking hands - seemingly crop up out of nowhere, with no external forces driving their creation.

Their study, published on 27th January in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), is built on the long-standing theory of spontaneous emergence. However, for the first time, the phenomenon of spontaneous emergence has been observed in an experiment involving a population of almost 100 people.

nullIn order to test for how conventions arise, Dr Baronchelli and Dr Centola devised a web game for participants called the Name Game in which participants from around the world played against one another using online advertisements. Players who were paired in each round of the game were shown a human face and asked to give it a name.

If both players provided the same name, they won a small amount of money. If they failed, they lost some money and saw their partner's name suggestion. Players did not know who they were playing with, or that they were part of a larger population.

Players either failed in arriving at global consensus or agreed on the same name within a handful of rounds, depending on the structure of their interactions. The experimental results are perfectly described by a theoretical model introduced by Dr Baronchelli and co-authors in 2006.

Though the game started off being chaotic on densely connected social networks with little consensus, after 10 to 12 rounds a curious and sudden shift took place, with everyone starting to use the same name, which, according to Dr Baronchelli, "caught on like wildfire and within a few rounds was universally adopted".

Dr Baronchelli's research disproves a popular notion that celebrities and institutions are key to leading trends such as the naming of babies.

The study, which has already received extensive coverage in various news outlets such as The Washington Post, The Daily Express, The Daily Mail and the Chicago Tribune, may help in understanding the effects of online connectedness in the emergence of new political, social, and economic behaviors and have implications for a number of fields such as health, business and finance.

Definition
Social conventions

A set of agreed and generally accepted norms and standards followed by a society or social group.

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