Magazine article Science News

Physicists Model the Power of Social Sway. (Peer Pressure in Numbers)

Magazine article Science News

Physicists Model the Power of Social Sway. (Peer Pressure in Numbers)

Article excerpt

Aromas from a kitchen fill a house. A drop of dye colors an entire bucket of water. It's all because molecules diffuse; they roam around in all directions.

But what would happen if the molecules--instead of moving completely randomly--were influenced by peer pressure? If molecules or particles or people tended to follow the paths of their trendiest neighbors, they might aggregate, even in locations far from their origins.

This type of peer-influenced behavior might explain many puzzling patterns that show up in everything from financial data to fluctuations in animal populations, says a team of physicists that has modeled the behavior mathematically.

"The equations are complex, but they have a rather simple physical meaning" says Jayanth R. Banavar of Pennsylvania State University in State College. He and his colleagues describe their model in the Aug. 19 Physical Review Letters.

The researchers used simple diffusion as the starting point for their model. Simple diffusion is like a random walk, Banavar explains. In such a walk, the direction of each successive step is governed by chance. If a crowd of random walkers starts from the same point, the pattern of dispersal of the crowd is predictable. At first, the walkers cluster relatively near the starting point, with only a few farther away. As time goes on, this bell-curve distribution becomes flatter and flatter until the crowd of walkers is evenly dispersed from the starting point, like the dye in the water bucket. …

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