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Research Abstracts - 2006
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Belief Dynamics and Cultural Shifts

Whitman Richards


This project is a large, multi-university, interdisciplinary effort initiated in 6/05, and funded by AFOSR. The official title is “Computational Models for Belief Revision, Group Decisions, and Cultural Shifts.”

The Problem

In 1993, Huntington argued that many conflicts will be dominated by cultural differences. Although cultural differences are but one source of conflicts, this aspect is highlighted today by events that have impacted US policies and posture. Yet in the past decade, almost no models have emerged that can forecast patterns of behavior when cultural forces clash. Such models must consider the roles of beliefs, attitudes, and sacred values within a culture, and how they interact with institutional constraints and perceived external pressures. They must address behaviors within a culture at the levels of the individual, the group, and the governing body. The most important objective of our MURI is to bring together models of beliefs and behaviors at each of the three levels, showing how the levels interact and influence one another.


To reach this objective, we have assembled the following interdisciplinary team:
Scott Atran, University of Michigan & CNRS, Anthropology
Jenna Bednar, Univ. Mich. , Political Science & Public Policy
Ken Forbus, Northwestern, Computer Science and Education
Doug Medin, Northwestern University, Psychology
Scott Page, University of Michigan , Political Science & Complexity
Avi Pfeffer, Harvard, Computer Science
Whitman Richards, MIT, Cognition and Artificial Intelligence
Brian Stankiewicz, University of Texas Austin , Psychology
Joshua Tenenbaum, MIT, Computation and Cognitive Science
Patrick Winston, MIT, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence

Robert Axelrod, University of Michigan , Political Science

Other Collaborators include:
Alex Pentland, Media Lab, MIT
Barry Silverman, ESE, Univ. Penn.
Rajesh Kasturirangan, Nat. Inst. Adv. Studies, Bangalore

The spectrum of our expertise is critical to the success of our project. We are using use a multi-prong, interdisciplinary attack. First, the field data available on the effects of cultural change on belief dynamics and behavior are brought to the attention of the collaborating modelers, each expert in quite different types of computational models. These include probabilistic models, Bayes nets, agent-based networks, graphical models, causal and analogical models, and game-theoretic models. This range of models provides us with different representational frameworks appropriate for different levels of analysis, and subsequently, for the integration of models across the individual, group and social levels. In parallel, we are engaging in further field studies to increase our database. Thirdly, we use a VR microworld in the laboratory to probe the more universal factors underlying trust, cooperation, belief revision, and leadership in adversarial group decision-making.


Because of accessibility, our initial focus has been been on modeling data from field studies on behaviors and cultural shifts observed in Guatemalian and Native Indian societies. A secondary focus has been studies of terrorist networks and the belief revisions underlying their dynamics. Collaborations to date include MIT-Northwestern (2); MIT-Harvard (1), Univ. Texas with MIT&Harvard, and UMich-MIT (1). In Jan 06, a two day meeting was held at MIT of all members of the MURI and collaborators. (Presentations are on-line—see below.)


Our aim is to provide the first integrated computational models of how individual beliefs can influence group decision-making, how groups begin to coalesce into larger entities that lead to cultural shifts, and how these in turn lead to revisions in individual beliefs. Such models will provide predictive tools that can advance adversarial decision-making. For example, they will (1) identify key variables in social networks within different cultures that can be manipulated to revise beliefs; (2) show how social networks may be shattered or made to cohere through cultural shifts or external pressures; (3) show analogies and differences between cultural mind-sets that will provide better perspectives on how societies in different cultures will react to new pressures or to institutional change, and (4) give insights into how trust and belief revision can impact the effectiveness group decision-making.

Reference: http://groups.csail.mit.edu/belief-dynamics /

Supported under AFOSR Contract# FA9550-05-1-0321

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