Cross-posted from DailyKos
The Boston Globe reports today on how French physicists have applied bubble theory to human behavior, and have found it to be remarkably applicable. According to the Globe:
our inclination to imitate one another–in everything from buying houses to having children to clapping at the end of concerts–makes mass behavior prone to dramatic and seemingly inexplicable swings that echo the patterns found among the building blocks of matter. We’ve all heard that people are like sheep. But maybe we’re more like atoms.
For more from the article, and how this applies to kos’s tiff with the DLC, follow me to the other side…
The key passage in the article is here:
Imitation means that one person’s decision influences that of another; if many people buy cell phones, I will be more likely to buy one too. As Michard and Bouchaud point out, this basic effect has a direct analogy with the physics of atoms. Within a piece of iron, for example, the atoms are like microscopic magnets, with north and south poles; you can think of them as tiny arrows pointing in various directions. Put the chunk of iron in a strong magnetic field, and all the tiny arrows will tend to line up with it, like soldiers falling into formation. But even in the absence of such an overwhelming external force, these atoms also influence each other; if many point in one direction, they tend to coerce others nearby to line up in the same way also.
Now kos (a little bit here, but especially through Armando here and here) has been taking it to the DLC with the argument that Democrats have to define our positions strongly, rather than seek out a “mushy middle.”
Many of us here intuitively agree with that argument, though for some of us it might just be we’re tired of getting our butts kicked and we just want to fight back. Those of us who have been around for a while, however, also recall having seen fairly rapid polar shifts in American politics — the rise of the anti-Vietnam War movement, for example, or the fall of Nixon; the Reagan Revolution, and the Clintonian counter-reaction. We know it happens, we’re just not sure why.
This research helps explain it. The way I understand it, an opinion whose time has come simply explodes into popular consciousness, and in a very short period of time becomes dominant. Kuhn had described this process back in the sixties as a paradigm shift; this new research relies less on a rational process of matching opinion with evidence and much more on people simply wanting to fit in with their neighbors.
The Globe article focuses on market bubbles, crowd behavior, and fashion. The political applications, nevertheless, are compelling. By going to the middle, we would become indistinguishable, and lose the historic opportunity to shift American political consciousness in a major way.