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The Spontaneous Emergence of Conventions: An Experimental Study of Cultural Evolution

Dr. Damon Centola

Tuesday, September 22, 2015, 01:00pm - 02:00pm

University of Pennsylvania, Annenberg School of Communication

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Social conventions are the foundation of social cooperation and productive economic activity, yet very little is known about how and when they form.  Prominent theories argue that widely shared social conventions depend up on coordinating mechanisms, such as incentives for global coordination, aggregated information, and social leadership.  We explore a competing ‘evolutionary’ theory of conventions, which hypothesizes that broad social coordination can emerge without any of these mechanisms.  We use an Internet experiment to study the real-time evolution of endogenous collective behaviors from a ‘state of nature’ in which there are an infinite number of possible conventions and no incentives for global coordination.  Our results confirm our formal hypotheses, demonstrating that changes to network connectivity can generate the spontaneous formation of global social conventions.  The results have unexpected implications for the evolution of collective behaviors in the expanding online domain.  

Bio:

Damon Centola is an Associate Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is Director of the Network Dynamics Group.  Before coming to Penn, he was an Assistant Professor at M.I.T. and a Robert Wood Johnson Fellow at Harvard University.  Damon completed his Ph.D. in sociology at Cornell University where he was an NSF IGERT Fellow in Non-linear Dynamics and Complex Systems.  He has been a Fellow of the Center for the Study of Social Organization at Princeton University, the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences at Stanford University, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. 

Damon’s work addresses the theory of how behaviors spread through social networks. His research uses computational models and online experiments to study innovation diffusion, social epidemiology and cultural evolution.  His research has contributed to sociology, physics, and public health, appearing in journals such as Science, the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, and the American Journal of Sociology.  Damon received the American Sociological Association’s Award for Outstanding Article in Mathematical Sociology in 2006, 2009, and 2011, and garnered the ASA's 2011 Goodman Award for Outstanding Contribution to Sociological Methodology.  He helped to develop the NetLogo agent based modeling environment, and was awarded a U.S. Patent for inventing a method to promote network diffusion online.  Recent popular accounts of Damon’s work have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wired, and CNN.  His research has been funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the James S. McDonnell Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation.  His currently working on a book with Princeton University Press on how behaviors spread.

Dr. Damon Centola