Bollen leads IU involvement in DARPA-funded study of human social behavior

Johan Bollen

Associate professor Johan Bollen is a member of a scientific team that has received an award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop and validate reproducible methods for studying human social behavior.

DARPA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense that invests in breakthrough technologies to support national security. The award is part of DARPA’s new Next Generation Social Science program, or NGS2, which aims to revolutionize the speed, scale, and rigor with which social science is conducted.

The effort will encompass three scales of methods development and experimentation. On one level, the team will use game theory and evolutionary modeling to predict what factors govern group behaviors such as cooperation. The researchers will also put game theory into action, recruiting participants to play in-lab and online games to test model predictions about the conditions that encourage a group to act as a cohesive whole. Finally, the research team will take advantage of massive social media datasets from numerous sources, including Twitter and Facebook, to identify how social norms and collective identities arise and change over time in the real world. The IU team will, in particular, address the challenge of testing quantitative hypotheses and models with respect to the emergence and evolution of collective identity using these data resources.

“We’re focusing on collective identity because it is such an interesting phenomenon that allows us to test quantitative, mechanistic models, and theories across many different scales of analysis,” Bollen says.

The grant provides the multi-disciplinary team with $2.95 million for two years—with a possible additional $2.3 million for a subsequent 18 months—to further the goals of the NGS2 program. One of those goals includes the development of a deeper understanding of the factors that drive the emergence or evolution of collective identity in human populations.

“Our team has developed an entire toolkit of data sets, methods, and approaches to model the psychological and social properties of individuals as well as communities that will be instrumental to this effort,” Bollen explains. “In particular, we will be conducting longitudinal studies of large-scale and social media data to study how individual characteristics, psychological states, belief systems, and social network parameters evolve over time to shape the emergence of collective identity.”

NGS2 also serves as a response to the so-called “reproducibility crisis” in the sciences, and the social sciences in particular, in which published findings have failed to be corroborated by follow-up studies.

“One of the objectives of this effort is to connect analysis and observation across multiple scales all the way from the laboratory to very large-scale societal studies,” Bollen says. “The reproducibility aspect is very important. The teams will actively collaborate in sharing data, models, and hypotheses so results can be verified, reproduced, and used to advance social science.”

The DARPA award is structured with reproducibility built in: Each of the DARPA funded teams will develop and test its own models and hypotheses during the first phase of the project, and they will then cross-validate each other’s predictions in a second phase using their own study subjects. In addition, applying a relatively new practice in the social sciences, the researchers will pre-register all of their experimental plans with a neutral third party in advance of performing them. This process, which requires laying out their hypotheses, protocols, and planned analytical techniques, will help ensure proper, unbiased interpretation of results.

Bollen will work with Penn’s Joshua B. Plotkin, a professor of biology with appointments in mathematics and computer and information science, who leads the project. The other PIs includes Erol Akçay of Penn; David Rand of Yale University; Simon Levin of Princeton University; and Alexander Stewart of University College London.

“Many global trends, including conflicts among non-state ethnic groups and the growing influence of social media, point to the importance of social science for understanding the drivers of social and national stability,” Plotkin says. “We are excited about the prospect of developing and applying cutting-edge science and technology to help social science become an even more insightful and predictive field, and, in particular, to better understand the phenomenon of collective identity.”

Bollen agrees.

“Social science may very well turn out to be one of the most important components of a 21st century national security strategy,” Bollen says. “A better understanding of the decision-making processes and behaviors of individuals and communities at scale will be crucial to our nation’s security and prosperity. This project will make significant contributions towards those goals.”

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