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Mapping collective behavior in the big-data era

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 February 2014

R. Alexander Bentley
Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1UU, United Kingdom.
Michael J. O'Brien
Department of Anthropology, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211obrienm@missouri.edu
William A. Brock
Department of Economics, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211; and Department of Economics, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706wbrock@scc.wisc.edu


The behavioral sciences have flourished by studying how traditional and/or rational behavior has been governed throughout most of human history by relatively well-informed individual and social learning. In the online age, however, social phenomena can occur with unprecedented scale and unpredictability, and individuals have access to social connections never before possible. Similarly, behavioral scientists now have access to “big data” sets – those from Twitter and Facebook, for example – that did not exist a few years ago. Studies of human dynamics based on these data sets are novel and exciting but, if not placed in context, can foster the misconception that mass-scale online behavior is all we need to understand, for example, how humans make decisions. To overcome that misconception, we draw on the field of discrete-choice theory to create a multiscale comparative “map” that, like a principal-components representation, captures the essence of decision making along two axes: (1) an east–west dimension that represents the degree to which an agent makes a decision independently versus one that is socially influenced, and (2) a north–south dimension that represents the degree to which there is transparency in the payoffs and risks associated with the decisions agents make. We divide the map into quadrants, each of which features a signature behavioral pattern. When taken together, the map and its signatures provide an easily understood empirical framework for evaluating how modern collective behavior may be changing in the digital age, including whether behavior is becoming more individualistic, as people seek out exactly what they want, or more social, as people become more inextricably linked, even “herdlike,” in their decision making. We believe the map will lead to many new testable hypotheses concerning human behavior as well as to similar applications throughout the social sciences.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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