Epstein presents research on neuroscience and social phenomena

On Tuesday, about 30 people attended a presentation held in Shaffer 101 by Joshua Epstein, a professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine. His lecture, entitled “Agent Zero: Toward Neurocognitive Foundations for Generative Social Science,” described the neuroscience involved in mass social phenomena. The talk focused on Epstein’s book of the same name, which is the seventh book he has written.

“We want to understand mass, irrational phenomena like genocide, financial panics, lynch mobs, vaccine refusal and other social phenomena that are not entirely rational,” Epstein said. “The models we have are entirely rational, so can we build a model that’s formal, mathematical [and] scientifically serious but includes non-rational components of human behavior?”

Epstein characterizes his book as a new theoretical entity that describes human behavior in terms of emotions, like fear, as well as also bounded, limited rationality. His discontent with the rational actor model that dominates social sciences inspired him to write the Agent Zero.

“We are embedded in social networks where other emotional, boundedly rational creatures influence behavior to the point where the individual can even lead mass actions that they alone wouldn’t even join,” Epstein said. “Where’s the formal mathematical alternative model? I wanted to fill that gap in literature and build an alternative, but do it in a very simple way. [I wanted to] do it in a way that’s consistent with the fabulous field of cognitive neuroscience.”

Agent Zero was funded by the NIH Pioneer Award, which awards grants to those who propose pioneering challenges in biomedical and behavioral research. The award is designed for high-risk projects that have the potential to yield large rewards.

The research process included a purely mathematical aspect, which entailed attempting to find simple mathematical models that would crudely generate large-scale phenomena. Epstein says that he had never taken formal classes in neuroscience, and that learning this subject was one of the most rewarding parts of the project. He credits Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Psychology Peter Holland with helping him in his endeavor.

Epstein was pleasantly surprised that such a simple agent could generate such a wide variety of social phenomena, including replication of a seminal social psychology experiment known as the Smoke Under the Door experiment, which tested the reactions of people in both individual and group situations when smoke suddenly appears from under the door of a waiting room.

Epstein received his Bachelor’s degree at Amherst College and his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He attended high school for only three years before he was accepted to the University of Massachusetts based on a piano audition. After three years, he transferred to Amherst, where he became the Assistant Conductor of the Symphony Orchestra.

Epstein has joint appointments in the departments of Applied Mathematics, Economics, Biostatistics, International Health and Environmental Health Sciences.He is also the Director of the JHU Center for Advanced Modeling in the Social, Behavioral and Health Sciences, and he serves on the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Identifying and Prioritizing New Preventive Vaccines.

Epstein is most passionate about math, music and justice, which he considers to be the most important issue.

“The book tries to warn people that they are subject to many unconscious forces, like contagious fear, pressures toward conformity and acquisition of biases and prejudices. We should recognize capacity for fear as evolutionary valuable but also double-edged and easily manipulated,” he said.

Read more here: http://www.jhunewsletter.com/2014/09/05/epstein-presents-research-on-neuroscience-and-social-phenomena-98263/
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