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Formal theory building for the avalanche game: explaining counter-intuitive behaviour of a complex system using geometrical and human behavioural/physiological effects

By David C. Lane


In 'Avalanche', an object is lowered, players staying in contact throughout. Normally the task is easily accomplished. However, with larger groups counter-intuitive behaviours appear. The paper proposes a formal theory for the underlying causal mechanisms. The aim is to not only provide an explicit, testable hypothesis for the source of the observed modes of behaviour-but also to exemplify the contribution that formal theory building can make to understanding complex social phenomena. Mapping reveals the importance of geometry to the Avalanche game; each player has a pair of balancing loops, one involved in lowering the object, the other ensuring contact. For more players, sets of balancing loops interact and these can allow dominance by reinforcing loops, causing the system to chase upwards towards an ever-increasing goal. However, a series of other effects concerning human physiology and behaviour (HPB) is posited as playing a role. The hypothesis is therefore rigorously tested using simulation. For simplicity a 'One Degree of Freedom' case is examined, allowing all of the effects to be included whilst rendering the analysis more transparent. Formulation and experimentation with the model gives insight into the behaviours. Multi-dimensional rate/level analysis indicates that there is only a narrow region in which the system is able to move downwards. Model runs reproduce the single 'desired' mode of behaviour and all three of the observed 'problematic' ones. Sensitivity analysis gives further insight into the system's modes and their causes. Behaviour is seen to arise only when the geometric effects apply (number of players greater than degrees of freedom of object) in combination with a range of HPB effects. An analogy exists between the co-operative behaviour required here and various examples: conflicting strategic objectives in organizations; Prisoners' Dilemma and integrated bargaining situations. Additionally, the game may be relatable in more direct algebraic terms to situations involving companies in which the resulting behaviours are mediated by market regulations. Finally, comment is offered on the inadequacy of some forms of theory building and the case is made for formal theory building involving the use of models, analysis and plausible explanations to create deep understanding of social phenomena

Topics: BF Psychology
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
Year: 2008
DOI identifier: 10.1002/sres.911
OAI identifier:
Provided by: LSE Research Online
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