Monday, December 02, 2002

The physics of peer pressure

Bracks. Listens. Acts. Econophysists have a cynical view of elections. They say that's the way the evidence falls. I explained on Life Matters this morning that according to econophysists Jozef Sznajd and Katarzyna Sznajd-Weron from the Polish Academy of Sciences and also Dietrich Stauffer from Cologne University a 'signature' in the pattern of voting at elections matches that found in the alignment of metal filings. The metal filings get that pattern through the simple decision-making rule of each aligning itself in the same direction as most of its nearest neighbours. In other words, the filings decide their alignment based purely on the alignment of the filings they happen to rub up against. They don't decide based on the strength of an argument.

There are circumstances in which the strength of an argument does matter for magnetically-charged particles. It is when they are in solution, and they cluster around 'seed particles'. The most convincing particles build up the biggest clusters. But the 'signature' pattern of the distribution of alignments that results is completely different to that that we see in the results of human elections.

Peer pressure appears to matter when we decide to vote. Considering the issues does not.

Bruce Schechter, the author of the New Scientist article concludes that "there's only one way to be sure that our future elections are not determined by the opinions of our neighbours. We need to abolish the right to free speech: it's undermining democracy."

Perhaps he is right. Perhaps we need secret and silent deliberation of the issues, in the same way as we need a secret ballot.

Then again, perhaps our decisions about how to vote at elections are no different from any of our other decisions. (Whether to buy Levi's jeans etc.. etc.) Most of the "decisions" we make may in reality be no more than simple responses to simple stimuli. Our minds may invent a rationale after the event to make us feel that we are in control.

Inventing explanations might be the hardest work that our conscious mind does. A bit like a section of the bureaucracy that devotes most of its effort to proving that it actually has work to do.

Just a thought... or perhaps a simple response to stimuli, or perhaps an explanation for a simple response to stimuli.