Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

Mapping collective behavior in the big-data era

R. Alexander Bentleya1, Michael J. O'Briena2 and William A. Brocka3

a1 Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1UU, United Kingdom.

a2 Department of Anthropology, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211

a3 Department of Economics, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211; and Department of Economics, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706


The behavioral sciences have flourished by studying how traditional and/or rational behavior has been governed throughout most of human history by relatively well-informed individual and social learning. In the online age, however, social phenomena can occur with unprecedented scale and unpredictability, and individuals have access to social connections never before possible. Similarly, behavioral scientists now have access to “big data” sets – those from Twitter and Facebook, for example – that did not exist a few years ago. Studies of human dynamics based on these data sets are novel and exciting but, if not placed in context, can foster the misconception that mass-scale online behavior is all we need to understand, for example, how humans make decisions. To overcome that misconception, we draw on the field of discrete-choice theory to create a multiscale comparative “map” that, like a principal-components representation, captures the essence of decision making along two axes: (1) an east–west dimension that represents the degree to which an agent makes a decision independently versus one that is socially influenced, and (2) a north–south dimension that represents the degree to which there is transparency in the payoffs and risks associated with the decisions agents make. We divide the map into quadrants, each of which features a signature behavioral pattern. When taken together, the map and its signatures provide an easily understood empirical framework for evaluating how modern collective behavior may be changing in the digital age, including whether behavior is becoming more individualistic, as people seek out exactly what they want, or more social, as people become more inextricably linked, even “herdlike,” in their decision making. We believe the map will lead to many new testable hypotheses concerning human behavior as well as to similar applications throughout the social sciences.

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  • agents;
  • copying;
  • decision making;
  • discrete-choice theory;
  • innovation;
  • networks;
  • technological change

R. Alexander Bentley is Professor and Head of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Bristol. He is the author, along with Michael J. O'Brien and Mark Earls, of I'll Have What She's Having: Mapping Social Behavior (MIT Press, 2011). Much of his recent research, published in PLoS ONE, European Business Review, Frontiers in Psychology, Mind and Society, and Current Zoology, addresses the spread of information, especially in the online age. He also uses isotopic analysis of prehistoric skeletons to study social organization in Neolithic Europe and Southeast Asia. Recent publications appear in Antiquity and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA.

Michael J. O'Brien is Professor of Anthropology and Dean of the College of Arts and Science, University of Missouri. His recent research takes three directions: (1) the dynamics of information flow in modern societies, in collaboration with R. Alexan der Bentley and William A. Brock; (2) the role of agriculture in human niche construction, in collaboration with Kevin N. Laland (Univers ity of St Andrews); and (3) the first thousand or so years of human occupatio n of North America, in collaboration primarily with Mark Collard and Briggs Buchanan (Simon Fraser University). Recent publications appear in Current Anthropology, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, PLoS ONE, Journal of Archaeological Science, and Frontiers in Psychology.

William A. Brock is Vilas Research Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Research Professor, Universit y of Missouri. He is a Fellow of the Econometric Society (since 1974), and was a Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar, California Institute of Technology, in 1978, and a Guggenheim Fellow in 1987. He has been a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1992, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, since 1998, and a Distinguished Fellow, American Economic Association, in 2004. Brock received the honorary degree of Doctor Honoris Causa from the University of Amsterdam in January 2009.