Statistical Physics of Opinion and Social Conflict

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School of Science | Doctoral thesis (article-based) | Defence date: 2013-04-23
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Aalto University publication series DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS, 59/2013
The rise and development of opinion groups, just as their clash in social conflict, are notoriously difficult to study due to a complex interplay between structure and dynamics. The intricate feedback between psychological and sociological processes, tied with an ample variability of individual traits, makes these systems challenging both intellectually and methodologically. Yet regular patterns do emerge from the collective behavior of dissimilar people, seen in population and crime rates, in protest movements and the adoption of innovations. Statistical physics comes then as an apt and successful framework for their study, characterizing society as the common product of single wills, interactions among people and external effects. The work in this Thesis provides mathematical descriptions for the evolution of opinions in society, based on simple mechanisms of individual conduct and group influence. Such models abstract the inherent complexity of human behavior by reducing people to opinion variables spread over a network of social interactions, with variables and interactions changing in time at the pace of a handful of equations. Their macroscopic properties are interpreted as the emergence of social groups and of conflict between them due to opinion disagreement, and compared with small controlled experiments or with large online records of social activity. The extensive analysis of these models, both numerical and analytical, leads to a couple of generic observations on the link between opinion and social conflict. First, the emergence of consensual groups in society may be regulated by well-separated time scales of opinion dynamics and network evolution, and by a distribution of personality traits in the population. Our social environment can then be fragmented as more people turn against the collective mood, ultimately forming minorities as a response to external influence. Second, the exchange of views in collaborative tasks may lead not only to the rise and resolution of opinion issues, but to an intermediate state where conflicts appear periodically. In this way strife and cooperation, so much a part of human nature, can be emulated by surprisingly simple interactions among individuals.
Supervising professor
Kaski, Kimmo, Prof. Aalto University, Finland
Thesis advisor
Kaski, Kimmo, Prof. Aalto University, Finland
social dynamics, statistical physics, adaptive networks, mathematical modeling
Other note
  • [Publication 1]: Gerardo Iniguez, Janos Kertesz, Kimmo K. Kaski, and Rafael A. Barrio. Opinion and community formation in coevolving networks. Physical Review E, Volume 80, Issue 6, 066119, December 2009.
  • [Publication 2]: Gerardo Iniguez, Rafael A. Barrio, Janos Kertesz, Kimmo K. Kaski. Modelling opinion formation driven communities in social networks. Computer Physics Communications, Volume 182, Issue 9, 1866–1869, September 2011.
  • [Publication 3]: Gerardo Iniguez, Janos Kertesz, Kimmo K. Kaski, and Rafael A. Barrio. Phase change in an opinion-dynamics model with separation of time scales. Physical Review E, Volume 83, Issue 1, 016111, January 2011.
  • [Publication 4]: Gerardo Iniguez, Julia Taguena-Martinez, Kimmo K. Kaski, and Rafael A. Barrio. Are Opinions Based on Science: Modelling Social Response to Scientific Facts. PLoS ONE, Volume 7, Issue 8, e42122, August 2012.
  • [Publication 5]: Janos Torok, Gerardo Iniguez, Taha Yasseri, Maxi San Miguel, Kimmo K. Kaski, and Janos Kertesz. Opinions, Conflicts and Consensus: Modeling Social Dynamics in a Collaborative Environment. Physical Review Letters, Volume 110, Issue 8, 088701, February 2013.