Papers

Social learning and partisan bias in the interpretation of climate trends
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2018)
Douglas Guilbeault, Joshua Becker, Damon Centola
Scientific communications about climate change are frequently misinterpreted due to motivated reasoning, which leads some people to misconstrue climate data in ways that conflict with the intended message of climate scientists. Attempts to reduce partisan bias through bipartisan communication networks have found that exposure to diverse political views can exacerbate bias. Here, we find that belief exchange in structured bipartisan networks can significantly improve the ability of both conservatives and liberals to interpret climate data, eliminating belief polarization. We also find that social learning can be reduced, and polarization maintained, when the salience of partisanship is increased, either through exposure to the logos of political parties or through exposure to political identity markers.
Experimental evidence for tipping points in social convention
Science (2018)
Damon Centola, Joshua Becker, Devon Brackbill, Andrea Baronchelli
Once a population has converged on a consensus, how can a group with a minority viewpoint overturn it? Theoretical models have emphasized tipping points, whereby a sufficiently large minority can change the societal norm. Groups of people who had achieved a consensus about the name of a person shown in a picture were individually exposed to a confederate who promoted a different name. The only incentive was to coordinate. When the number of confederates was roughly 25% of the group, the opinion of the majority could be tipped to that of the minority.
Learning is robust to noise in decentralized networks.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017)
Joshua Becker, Devon Brackbill, Damon Centola
Our study presents a theoretical model and experimental test of how social influence affects the wisdom of crowds. Our theoretical simulations show that the accuracy of the group mean can improve in decentralized networks when the weight that individuals place on their own estimates is positively correlated with their accuracy. Empirically, our findings confirm this prediction, showing that a correlation between individual accuracy and self-weight can explain how social influence improves the mean of the group estimate.
How social networks shape social comparison
Social Comparison in Judgment and Behavior (2018)
Jingwen Zhang, Damon Centola
While social comparison research has focused on the processes and consequences of how the comparer gleans information from the comparison other (individual or group), recent research on social networks demonstrates how information and influence is distributed across persons in a network. This chapter reviews social influence processes in social networks. We first review recent research on social comparison and its negative consequences in online social networks. Then we delve into discussing the social network causes of biased social perceptions online and how this can be remedied by building more accurate perceptions through constructed online networks. Lastly, we discuss findings from recent experimental studies that illustrate how constructed online networks can harness social comparison to induce significant changes in health behavior.
Complex Contagions: A Decade in Review
Springer Nature (2018)
Douglas Guilbeault, Joshua Becker, Damon Centola
Since the publication of ‘Complex Contagions and the Weakness of Long Ties’ in 2007, complex contagions have been studied across an enormous variety of social domains. In reviewing this decade of research, we discuss recent advancements in applied studies of complex contagions, particularly in the domains of health, innovation diffusion, social media, and politics. We also discuss how these empirical studies have spurred complementary advancements in the theoretical modeling of contagions, which concern the effects of network topology on diffusion, as well as the effects of individual-level attributes and thresholds. In synthesizing these developments, we suggest three main directions for future research. The first concerns the study of how multiple contagions interact within the same network and across networks, in what may be called an ecology of contagions. The second concerns the study of how the structure of thresholds and their behavioral consequences can vary by individual and social context. The third area concerns the roles of diversity and homophily in the dynamics of complex contagion, including both diversity of demographic profiles among local peers, and the broader notion of structural diversity within a network. Throughout this discussion, we make an effort to highlight the theoretical and empirical opportunities that lie ahead.
Network dynamics of social influence in the wisdom of crowds
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017)
Joshua Becker, Devon Brackbill, Damon Centola
Medical decisions are based on scientific research which allows physicians to make treat patients based on probability estimates about the likelihood of diagnoses and treatment efficacy. Where medical diagnoses are made in conditions of uncertainty, physicians must rely on their judgement to generate the best decision possible. At the same time, large variations in medical procedure between geographical regions indicate that medical decisions are also subject to social influence by peers and community norms. Fortunately, research on the wisdom of crowds has shown that the average belief within a group is generally more accurate than any given individual. Our pilot tests on simple estimation tasks have shown that by allowing people to share information with each other, individuals can draw on the wisdom of crowds to improve the accuracy of their beliefs. This project is designed to understand how encouraging information flow between physicians and institutions can improve the accuracy of medical diagnoses.
Support or competition? How online social networks increase physical activity:
A randomized controlled trial

Preventive Medicine Reports (2016)
Jingwen Zhang, Devon Brackbill, Sijia Yang, Joshua Becker, Natalie Herbert, Damon Centola
Online social networks have become a highly attractive target for large scale health initiatives; however, there is insufficient knowledge about why online networks might be effective sources of social influence for improving physical activity levels. In a randomized controlled trial, we evaluate the effects of social support and social comparison independently, and in combination, to determine how social motivations for behavior change directly impact people’s exercise activity.
Identifying the effects of social media on health behavior: Data from a large-scale online experiment
Data in Brief (2015)
Jingwen Zhang, Devon Brackbill, Sijia Yang, and Damon Centola
Sedentary lifestyle is an escalating epidemic. Little is known about whether or how social media can be used to design a cost-effective solution for sedentary lifestyle. In this article we describe the data from a randomized controlled trial (RCT) that evaluated two prominent strategies for conducting exercise interventions using elements of social media: motivational media campaigns and online peer networks.
The social origins of networks and diffusion
American Journal of Sociology (2015)
Damon Centola
Recent research on social contagion has demonstrated significant effects of network topology on the dynamics of diffusion. However, network topologies are not given a priori. Rather, they are patterns of relations that emerge from individual and structural features of society, such as population composition, group heterogeneity, homophily, and social consolidation.

  • Awarded 2017 James Coleman Award for Outstanding Article, Rationality and Society Section of the American Sociological Association
The spontaneous emergence of conventions: An experimental study of cultural evolution
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2015)
Damon Centola and Andrea Baronchelli
We present experimental results—replicated at several scales—that demonstrate the spontaneous creation of universally adopted social conventions and show how simple changes in a population’s network structure can direct the dynamics of norm formation, driving human populations with no ambition for large scale coordination to rapidly evolve shared social conventions.
Choosing your network: Social preferences in an online health community
Social Science and Medicine (2014)
Damon Centola and Arnout van der Rijt
A growing number of online health communities offer individuals the opportunity to receive information, advice, and support from peers. Recent studies have demonstrated that these new online contacts can be important informational resources, and can even exert significant influence on individuals’ behavior in various contexts.
Social media and the science of health behavior
Circulation (2013)
Damon Centola
The recent explosion of social media provides significant new opportunities for health researchers to study how social interactions affect the dynamics of behavior change.
A simple model of stability in critical mass dynamics
Journal of Statistical Physics (2013)
Damon Centola
While strong social incentives, such as peer-enforcement, can facilitate the growth of collective action and collective behavior, these incentives can also compromise the dynamics of long term stability.
The spread of behavior in an online social network experiment (Supporting materials)
Science (2010)
Damon Centola
Experimental results show that behaviors spread farther and faster through clustered-lattice networks than through ‘randomized’ networks.

  • Awarded 2011 Best Article in Mathematical Sociology,American Sociological Association
  • Awarded 2011 Goodwin Award for Outstanding Contribution to Sociological Methodology, American Sociological Association
Failure in complex social networks
Journal of Mathematical Sociology (2009)
Damon Centola
Scale-free networks can be far more vulnerable to failure due to random attacks than more homogeneously distributed exponential networks.
Complex contagions and the weakness of long ties
American Journal of Sociology (2007)
Damon Centola and Michael Macy
When behavioral adoption requires peer reinforcement, adding weak ties to a social network can actually slow down (and even prevent entirely) the diffusion process.

  • Awarded 2009 Best Article in Mathematical Sociology, American Sociological Association
Cascade dynamics of complex propagation
Physica A (2007)
Damon Centola, Victor Eguiluz, and Michael Macy
Randomizing permutations on ordered social networks can cause phase transitions in the collective dynamics of diffusion.
Homophily, cultural drift, and the co-evolution of cultural groups
Journal of Conflict Resolution (2007)
Damon Centola, Juan Carlos Avella, Victor Eguiluz, and Maxi San Miguel
Allowing networks to evolve endogenously provides a mechanism for understanding how the “homogenizing” forces of homophily and social influence can produce cultural diversity.
The emperor’s dilemma: A computational model of self-enforcing norms
American Journal of Sociology (2005)
Damon Centola, Robb Willer, and Michael Macy
We investigate how normative behaviors that can be detrimental to everyone in a population can nonetheless wind up not only spreading, but also being enforced by every member of the population.

  • Awarded 2006 Best Article in Mathematical Sociology, American Sociological Association
Social life in silico: The science of artificial societies
Handbook of Group Research and Practice (2005)
Damon Centola and Michael Macy
Computational modeling has become well established as an essential methodology in the biological and physical sciences, and has recently begun a migration into the social sciences. In physics, systems with non-linear dynamics and sensitive dependence on initial conditions (so-called “complex systems”) have motivated the use of a wide variety of computational techniques. Similarly, social scientists have begun to appreciate that the complexity of social systems cannot be understood using traditional analytical techniques.