Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Science of Violence

An amazing study just came out in the journal Nature where people studied violent conflicts statistically and found that such conflicts all follow very similar patterns. And those patterns are very similar to how financial markets (also based on human behavior) function. Here is the abstract of the article:

Many collective human activities, including violence, have been shown to exhibit universal patterns. The size distributions of casualties both in whole wars from 1816 to 1980 and terrorist attacks have separately been shown to follow approximate power-law distributions. However, the possibility of universal patterns ranging across wars in the size distribution or timing of within-conflict events has barely been explored. Here we show that the sizes and timing of violent events within different insurgent conflicts exhibit remarkable similarities. We propose a unified model of human insurgency that reproduces these commonalities, and explains conflict-specific variations quantitatively in terms of underlying rules of engagement. Our model treats each insurgent population as an ecology of dynamically evolving, self-organized groups following common decision-making processes. Our model is consistent with several recent hypotheses about modern insurgency18, 19, 20, is robust to many generalizations, and establishes a quantitative connection between human insurgency, global terrorism and ecology. Its similarity to financial market models provides a surprising link between violent and non-violent forms of human behaviour

What is most striking is just how similar the patterns are whether you look at Afghanistan, Iraq, Peru or Colombia. They analyze both the size and timing of events and show that they fall on a very well-defined straight line on a log-log graph. Thus small scale attacks of violence occur more frequently and large-scale events far more rarely, though such large scale attacks are NOT isolated, unique events but rather simply one extreme of the normal dynamics of a conflict. The authors use these similarities across conflicts to formulate a model of insurgency by "treating the insurgent population as an ecology of dynamically evolving, decision-making groups..."

This model cannot be used to predict specific attacks any more than financial modeling can predict specific ups and downs of the markets or climate models can predict specific hurricanes or El Nino years. But, as with these other fields, this study can be used to analyze the overall dynamics of conflicts and could be used for emergency planning as well as for the timing and nature of interventions and diplomacy. Cool stuff and it shows that violent conflicts are far more orderly than I would have predicted.

You can see an article about this study on BBC News.

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