Physics meets democracy in this modeling study
New article explores how the views of an electorate can be reflected in a mathematical model “inspired by models of simple magnetic systems”
BUFFALO, NY – A study in the journal Physica A draws on concepts from physics to model how campaign strategies influence the views of an electorate in a two-party system.
The researchers created a digital model that describes how external influences, modeled as a random field, alter the views of potential voters as they interact with each other in different political environments.
The model accounts for the behavior of conformists (people whose opinions correspond to those of the majority in a social network); nonconformists (people whose views conflict with those of the majority); and inflexible (people who will not change their mind).
“The interplay between these behaviors allows us to create electorates with diverse behaviors interacting in environments with different levels of political party domination,” says lead author Mukesh Tiwari, PhD, associate professor at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of information and communication technologies.
“We are able to model the behavior and conflicts of democracies and capture different types of behavior that we see in elections,” says lead author Surajit Sen, PhD, professor of physics at the University of Buffalo College of Arts. and Sciences.
Sen and Tiwari conducted the study with Xiguang Yang, a former physics student at UB. Jacob Neiheisel, PhD, associate professor of political science at UB, provided feedback to the team, but was not the author of the research. The study was published online in Physica A in July and will appear in the journal volume of November 15.
The model described in the article has great similarities to Ising’s random field model and “is inspired by models of simple magnetic systems,” says Sen.
The team used this model to explore a variety of scenarios involving different types of political environments and electorates.
Among the main findings, as the authors write in the summary: “In an electorate made up only of conformist agents, short-lived, high-impact campaigns are very effective. … In electorates with both conformist and vexatious agents and varying levels of dominance due to local factors, short-term campaigns are only effective in the case of fragile single-party dominance. Strong local dominance is relatively difficult to influence, and long-term campaigns with strategies to impact politics at the local level are seen as more effective. “
“I think it’s exciting that physicists are thinking about social dynamics. I love the big tent, ”says Neiheisel, noting that one of the benefits of modeling is that it could allow researchers to explore how opinions might change over many election cycles – the kind of longitudinal data that is very difficult to collect.
Mathematical modeling has some limitations: “The real world is messy, and I think we should embrace it where possible, and the models don’t capture all of that mess,” says Neiheisel.
But Neiheisel was excited when physicists approached him to talk about the new document. He says the model provides “an interesting window” into the processes associated with opinion dynamics and campaign effects, accurately capturing a number of effects in a “neat way.”
“The complex dynamics of strongly interacting nonlinear and disordered systems has been a topic of interest for a long time,” says Tiwari. “There is a lot of merit in studying social systems through mathematical and computational models. These models provide insight into short and long term behavior. However, such endeavors can only be successful when social scientists and physicists come together to collaborate. “