Experiments in Social Physics

I recently finished a book entitled “The Social Atom” by physicist Mark Buchanan. In the book, he lays out the case for a science of social behavior that casts off the old reason-centric model for one that more closely maps to recent scientific discoveries.

The term he uses, “social physics” seems to have gained some foothold in the Google-driven public lexicon.

As I understand it, the defining aspects of social physics have to do with the consideration of behaviors not as the sum of rational human agencies, but as a shifting play of genetic and cultural legacies.

Late to the party “rationality,” he says, rests atop a much more elemental bedrock of instinctive behaviors that have come down to us by virtue of the great preponderance of evolutionary time our progenitors spent as hunter-gatherers traveling about in groups of a few dozen or so.

Under such circumstances, individual success or failure was largely determined by one’s ability to respond, adapt and form quick alliances within the tribe, while at the same time being very cautious towards outsiders who might threaten the safety of the group.

Behaviors thus emerge in such environments that are not so beneficial to any one individual, as they are to the survival of the group.

He says that behind our rational public persona lies a psyche that “seems to be ruled by ancient spirits making quick and brutal judgments with little time for nuance and subtlety.”

On the plus side, such instinctive responses allow for quick and nimble adaptations and agile course corrections. We try things out and when we see we are wrong or that our efforts are not producing positive results, we switch course. That determination is based on two primary inputs – our own experience as well as our observation of and proximity to others.

Buchanan says that.. “This is the real secret of our intelligence: our ability to follow simple steps and to adjust and learn.”

What he says is that close to the core, we are each of us descended from gamblers and opportunists who are all very hard-wired into responding to the consensus. This can have both good and bad implications.

“The average man is destitute of independence of opinion. He is not interested in contriving an opinion of his own, by study and reflection, but is only anxious to find out what his neighbor’s opinion is and slavishly adopt it. ” (Mark Twain)

While it is comforting to imagine that reason rules our action, the truth as to what guides our actions looks to be altogether less obvious.

The implications for communicators  are obvious. The presentation begins the moment you enter the room – scan the crowd well and reflect them long enough to allow them to feel you as one of their own and so more ready to become allies to the ideas you are about to offer them.


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