Robert Axtell has spent a large portion of his career trying to figure out why people do the things they do. But he’s not a psychologist. He is a social science scholar, and he and his research team at Mason’s Center for Social Complexity (CSC) build computer models that simulate large numbers of people interacting.
“Interactions could be social, financial or political. It’s very hard to render those models mathematically,” he says. “It’s not easy to summarize the functionality or the performance of the simulation groups in numbers or graphs. Often what we’ll try and do is depict the entire market as it emerges.”
Axtell is one of the leaders in this field of research. In 1996, Axtell cowrote a seminal work on artificial societies titled “Growing Artificial Societies: Social Science from the Bottom Up,” with Joshua Epstein of the Brookings Institution. In the book, Axtell and Epstein present a computer model with which they begin to develop a bottom-up social science in a land known as Sugarscape.
As various changes in environment or agents are introduced, data on differing outcomes are produced. What the authors found is that “fundamental collective behaviors such as group formation, cultural transmission, combat and trade are seen to emerge from the interaction of individual agents following a few simple rules.”