Utrecht Complexity Research: Success and Luck

Complex systems can be found as a driving force behind many of the events we encounter in day to day life and play an important role in the societal challenges. Arnout van de Rijt gives some food for thought on complexity in his research. Van de Rijt is professor of Sociology and Institutions at Utrecht University and Designated Chair of the Utrecht University strategic theme Institutions for Open Societies.

You’re famous so you must be special

I am fascinated by the role of luck and positive feedback spirals in the determination of personal success. So and so is superfamous, but was (s)he always destined to be? So you’re extremely successful, does that mean you must be very talented? Or did you just get a lucky break, and then that success generated capital and reputation which enabled subsequent success, and so on? These questions are hard to answer, because only one version of history is realized. We can’t roll the dice again to see if different success hierarchies would have emerged in a parallel universe containing the same people with the same talents.

Complexity models of success dynamics

But complexity models of success dynamics can perform thought experiments that tell us whether, given a distribution of skill in a population and a level of positive feedback, the same hierarchy would always emerge or if instead success is fundamentally unpredictable. We can study these models formally and identify critical parameter values beyond which predictable worlds become unpredictable. And sometimes we can test these models in artificially controlled settings that we populate with real human subjects.

Studying live complex systems in massive online experiments

Not long ago such tests could only be done at a tiny scale, in laboratory experiments, but these days large-scale macro experiments on the internet can handle large crowds of people distributed across the globe interacting with one another. These macro-sociological experiments can create parallel universes on the internet through random assignment of subjects into independently evolving webpages. A pioneering experiment by Salganik, Dodds and Watts (2006) found that eight such planets populated with eight random samples from the same teenager population evolved different hit songs from the same song population. In my research I build experiments like this to test models of popularity dynamics.

Interdisciplinary cooperation

This research occurs at the nexus of social science, network science, complexity, and applied data science and naturally involves players from all these corners. Cooperation is not easy at all, starting with language. To a social scientist, the word “experiment” means a very specific type of human subject study, but may not involve any people at all in the mind of computer scientist! To overcome such obstacles, meeting places must be created to bring people together on a regular basis and overcome these natural barriers. That’s why the Centre for Complex Systems Studies and the Utrecht Platform for Applied Data Science are exactly what we need!