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Mathematical model illustrates our online 'copycat' behaviour

09 Jul 2014

Researchers have developed a model to examine our behaviour on online social networks, particularly the balance between copying friends and relying on provided 'best-seller' information.

The researchers, including Associate Professor Felix Reed-Tsochas, Director of Complexity Economics at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the University of Oxford, examined how users are influenced in the choice of apps that they install on their Facebook pages by creating a mathematical model to capture the dynamics at play.

They found that users selected apps on the basis of what their friends have recently added rather than by using Facebook’s equivalent of a best-seller list of apps. The model suggests users tended to be swayed by their friends' recent activity that they saw on their Facebook feeds over the previous couple of days. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and carried out in partnership with researchers at the University of Limerick and Harvard School of Public Health, found that the “copycat” tendency in human behaviour is strong and that we can be influenced by the activities of others over a relatively short period of time.

The researchers used data from a study published in 2010, which had tracked 100 million installations of apps adopted by Facebook users during two months. In the 2010 study, based on data collected in 2007, all Facebook users were able to see a list of the most popular apps (similar to best-seller lists) on their pages, as well as being notified about their friends’ recent app installations.

In the new study, the researchers developed a mathematical model to distinguish between the consequences of two distinct, competing mechanisms that appeared to drive the dynamics behind the behaviour of the Facebook users. They found that, although users seem to be influenced by both, the stronger effect on popularity dynamics was caused by the recent behaviour of others. The best-seller list did have a ‘mild’ effect on the behaviour of Facebook users, but an instinct to copy the behaviour of others was by far the more dominant instinct. 

Associate Professor Felix Reed-Tsochas, who is also James Martin Lecturer in Complex Systems at the Said Business School said: "We have used sophisticated modelling techniques to show how it is possible to tease apart different causal mechanisms that underpin behaviour even when the empirical data are purely observational. This is significant because the assumption these days is that only experimental research designs can provide such answers. Here, we found that the 'copycat' tendency plays a very important role in online behaviour. This might be because users need to make quick decisions in information-rich environments, but other research has identified similar imitative behaviour in the off-line world."

Co-author Professor James Gleeson, from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Limerick, said: "This study reveals how we can explore different scenarios using mathematical models to disentangle what drives people to behave the way they do using large data sets from the real online world. This opens up lots of new possibilities for studying human behaviour."

Please click here to read the paper.