The terrible truth about extremism

Extremism

Why is our way o’ living threatened by extremists? A natural question for anybody a-fretting and a-worrying about the state of world order. But the answer ain’t gonna please ya’ll. It’s looking increasingly as if extremism is an ordinary emergent property of societies like ours that we can’t do nothing about.

Andre Martins at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil has modeled the way opinions meander ‘n’ flow through society. His laboratory is a virtual world populated by thousands of opinionated “agents” that interact with each other and change their minds according to various rules. Martins’ work consists of setting the model running and then putting his feet up for a snooze until a suitable amount of opinion forming has gone on.

Various people have tried to model opinions in this way but Martins is the first to reproduce the extremism we actually see in society. In other models each agent can take one of two views according to the opinion of those agents nearby. For example, one rule might be that an agent is obliged to change its view if two or more neighboring agents hold the opposite view. This kind of model can show how opinions spread through a society but extremism never evolves because the agent can hold only one view or the other.

Instead, Martins allows his agents to have a continuous spectrum of opinions that range from one extreme to another. This is then influenced by those agents nearby. The result is that:

“The appearance of extremists is naturally observed and it seems to be a characteristic of this model. This can help explain cases where people are led, by social pressure, to believe blindly in whatever opinion is shared by its local group, despite divergent voices in the larger society they live in.”

So what’s the bottom line? According to Martins, extremism is a natural property of social networks like ours. And that means we ain’t ever gonna get rid of it.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0711.1199: Continuous Opinions and Discrete Actions in Opinion Dynamics Problems

One Response to “The terrible truth about extremism”

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