Asimov Wins the World

May 29, 2012

Brit Trogen

Psychohistory is the combination of history, sociology and statistics that aims to make accurate predictions about the future behavior of mass groups of people. It's a fictional science, created by Isaac Asimov in the classic science fiction series, Foundation.


Correction: it was fictional. Now, like many brilliant ideas, a theory suggested by science fiction is approaching reality. 



To be honest, psychohistory always seemed like something we should be able to do. What makes history, the movements and mindsets of populations, any less quantifiable than the movements of atoms or planets? As it turns out, psychohistory is proving to be an excellent way to study certain areas of human behavior—changes in language, or attitudes toward prejudice, violence, and incest, to name a few.


The key is looking at things in the social aggregate; not how one person acts and thinks, but how billions of people behave. It may be that an individual can change their attitude to a topic over the course of their life, but changes in mass psychology tend to happen slowly, and with a specific trajectory (even something as seemingly extreme as infanticide.)


Psychohistory (or "mathematical socoiology," as some less awesome people are calling it) is still only a small subset of sociology as a whole. But with social networks today being so much more quantifiable than they have been in the past (thanks, Zuck!), I predict we'll be seeing a big upswing in its use in the next few decades. Then all we have to do is figure out how to manipulate it...



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