The Social Atom Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You


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Bloomsbury USA


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1596910135

9781596910133

256 Pages

$24.95

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The idiosyncrasies of human decision-making have confounded economists and social theorists for years. If each person makes choices for personal (and often irrational) reasons, how can people's choices be predicted by a single theory?  The validity of any economic, social, or political theory comes into question. 
Mark Buchanan argues that the science of physics is beginning to provide a new picture of the human or “social atom,” and help us understand the surprising, and often predictable, patterns that emerge when they get together. Look at patterns, not people, Buchanan argues, and rules emerge that can explain how movements form, how interest groups operate, and even why ethnic hatred persists. Using similar observations, social physicists can predict whether neighborhoods will integrate, whether stock markets will crash, and whether crime waves will continue or abate.
 
The Social Atom is an incisive, accessible, and comprehensive argument for a new way to look at human social behavior.

REVIEWS

Praise for The Social Atom

"Mark Buchanan [is] a theoretical physicist . . . Buchanan argues that one of the basic assumptions of economics—namely, that humans make only reasoned, greedy, self-promoting decisions—is a simplification that calls the whole field into question . . . A former editor of the prestigious science journal Nature, Buchanan witnessed a growing number of physicists write papers about familiar mathematical patterns cropping up in human behavior.  This inspired him to write The Social Atom. His goal is to consider people 'as if they were atoms or molecules following fairly simple rules' and investigate the idea that 'seemingly complicated social happenings may often have quite simple origins, and that we can discover such simplicity by examining how we too may be subject to laws not unlike those of physics' . . . [The book asks] readers to move away from thinking of humans as individuals when it comes to social behavior in a group.  We are . . . simple atoms that think alike, copy one another and self-organize according to common mathematical patterns."—Russ Juskalian, USA Today
 
"Humans mimic other humans, whether they're clapping or buying mobile phones, writes Mark Buchanan in his beguiling behavioral study . . . Yet the same force may influence bigger decisions in life, like whether to have kids, he says. European birthrates slowed so dramatically between 1950 and 2000 that researchers concluded the trend was 'amplified and exaggerated by peer pressure' . . . A theoretical physicist, Buchanan suggests that sociologists should spend less time scrutinizing individual behavior and more time studying the group. 'Think of patterns, not people,' he urges, arguing that people are the atoms, or building blocks, of the social world. We imitate each other, cooperate, learn and adapt in a giant feedback system. Writing in lean, fluid sentences, Buchanan clicks through examples ranging from the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management to the slaughter at Srebrenica. He shows patterns at work in phantom traffic jams, stock sell-offs and the trails human feet carve through public parks . . . As promised in the book's subtitle, Buchanan explains 'Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You' . . . [Buchanan is] on to something big."—James Pressley, Bloomberg News
 
“Likely the Blink or Freakonomics of 2007, theoretical physicist Buchanan’s new book explains how we replicate the behavior of people we admire, and stick close to people with shared fundamental bonds such as ethnic heritage.”Time Out Chicago
 
“Everything we think about why we do what we do is wrong because we can't help but think and act like individuals, understanding the world around us with anecdote and simple stories. But as Mark Buchanan brilliantly demonstrates with examples from the world all around us, there's a bigger force at work that explains the world far better. Surprisingly, that force looks a lot like the semi-random statistical model that explained the mysteries of quantum physics a century ago. This is a fascinating glimpse into a new way of understanding human behavior.”—Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief, Wired Magazine, and author of The Long Tail: Why The Future of Business Is Selling Less of More
 
"Seldom has a book so infuriated me yet kept me tightly gripped to each page. This is a first-class attack on the smugness of the Humanities by a brilliant provocateur: a disturbing challenge to all of us who think we understand something about the logic of social action and the patterns of history."—Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums and Buda's Wagon
 
"This lucid and friendly introduction to social theory requires no mathematical or other prerequisites, is full of surprises, and introduces some new ways of thinking about the way human beings interact with each other."—Thomas C. Schelling, Professor emeritus, Harvard University and University of Maryland, and co-recipient of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics
 
“To those who have watched the social world unravel in recent decades and wondered why we couldn’t do better, Mark Buchanan offers a disarmingly simple solution: emulate the methods of explanation that have already proven themselves effective in the study of nature. The Social Atom is briskly written, informative, and deals with problems of the highest order. Read it and get a glimpse of the coming revolution in the social sciences.”—Lee McIntyre, author of Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behavior
 
"Buchanan, a theoretical physicist, applies the principles of physics to the study of human behavior. Think of human beings, he says, as 'social atoms,' interacting with other human beings according to fairly simple rules. It all comes down to patterns of behavior and to viewing human interaction from new (if sometimes slightly counterintuitive) angles. Buchanan tackles a wide variety of subjects, from genocide to fashion trends to class structure to pop culture, showing how they all can be seen as variations of the same theme: all human behavior is fundamentally the same, based on the same basic rules and, thus, often predictable . . . with intriguing examples—such as the groundbreaking study, conducted more than 30 years ago, in which a researcher showed that racial segregation may have very little to do with actual racism—the book challenges us to reappraise everything we think we know about why we do the things we do."—David Pitt, Booklist

Reviews from Goodreads

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Mark Buchanan is a theoretical physicist and an associate editor at Complexus, a journal on biocomplexity. He has been an editor at Nature and New Scientist, and is the author of numerous magazine and newspaper articles in the U.S. and U.K. Buchanan is also the author of two prize-nominated books, Ubiquity: The Science of History and Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks. He lives in Cambridgeshire, England.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


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  • Mark Buchanan is a theoretical physicist and an associate editor at Complexus, a journal on biocomplexity. He has been an editor at Nature and New Scientist, and is the author of two prize-nominated books, Ubiquity: The Science of History and Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks. He lives in Cambridgeshire, England.
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