BROOKE GLADSTONE: So back in the 18th century, Hamilton asked if we're really capable of self governance. Can modern science tell us what history cannot? Back in those days, and even today, despite abundant evidence to the contrary many believe that we make decisions rationally. So what's the rational decision making model. It's one that favors data over intuition, that assumes we have sufficient time and information to effectively weigh options and that will make choices that maximize benefits and minimize risk. Joshua Epstein is director of the Agent-Based Modeling Lab and a professor of epidemiology at New York University. He's put much of what we know about social behavior into a software model called Agent Zero. He programs individual hundreds, thousands, millions of agents zeroes with data drawn from across a range of disciplines, built in variation derived from that data and has them create their own social networks built on affinities. Then he places them in scenarios and watches what they do. The results aren't quite rational.
JOSHUA EPSTEIN: Well, the rational actor model assumes good information and the capacity to evaluate choices in a conscious deliberative orderly way. And this is not how humans work. We are an amalgam of impulses and deliberations and I prefer Hume who said, 'reason is a slave to the passions.' And I think that in our political behavior that's manifest.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you've created a theoretical entity called Agent Zero, made of software endowed with distinct emotional cognitive and social modules that are drawn from a wealth of neuroscientific data. Why did you invent Agent Zero?
JOSHUA EPSTEIN: My dissatisfaction with the rational actor was a prime motivation in inventing Agent Zero. And I wanted to build an agent that was cognitively plausible and used what we know about things like fear, conformity, that gets our teeth into the real drivers of human behavior and in particular collective behavior. We put a bunch of these Agents Zeros together. When you put them together, do the groups generate genocide, financial panic dysfunctional health behaviors. I try to draw a little toy Arab Spring, for example. Motivating factors are instances of regime corruption, nepotism, torture, what have you and people can grow very angry at the regime but not do anything because they're isolated from one another. But if you let them interact their emotions can amplify and you get a complete revolution. So it tells you why freedom of assembly is always the first victim of repressive regimes. Now they're going to differ from one another. That's one of the great strengths of agent modeling.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All of the modules are derived from data but they are created within a range.
JOSHUA EPSTEIN: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
JOSHUA EPSTEIN: Well maybe I should say a little more about how the thing actually works. Imagine that you have just two choices, right? Join the mob, don't. Buy the BMW, don't. Take the vaccine, don't. Purely binary choice. What I'm saying is they form a disposition based on their emotional module, deliberative module and social module. Behavior is just a binary thing in this model. You do it or you don't. If you do it, you do it because your total disposition is over some threshold. And what is your disposition? It's the sum of these modules. I'm working on an agent called Addict Zero where I'm trying to do the emotional module as the neurobiology of addiction. But that's different mathematics and different neuroscience. So what I'm interested in Agents Zero is let's get the ball rolling on a synthetic creature that involves emotional deliberative and social modules.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We haven't talked that much about the social module.
JOSHUA EPSTEIN: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which I assume must have some overlap with the emotion module. How does that change behavior in surprising ways?
JOSHUA EPSTEIN: The best example is a little simulation of jury trials that I ran with my little Agent Zeros. They have a little trial and every one of them would acquit. But when you put them all together, they unanimously convict. So they universally betray their own actual best instincts in that case.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You quote Tolstoy, who wrote, 'a king is history's slave, performing for the swarm life.' Does that imply that even our leaders are just repositories for sets of social fears?
JOSHUA EPSTEIN: That's what I'm playing with there. I've got these runs where Agent Zero, one of them goes first, who has no, no basis for any grievance. I mean, he's never had any experience with black people, he's never had any aversive experiences and he leads the lynch mob. So he's he's a bold man of action who's got deeper convictions than the others. No he's just the most susceptible to their dispositions. He takes the lead in mass behavior that he would never even do alone. So is he a leader or is he just susceptible to emotional contagion?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm wondering where all of this leaves us because we aren't acting rationally when we think we are. We're influenced by one another's fears and prejudices. Does Agent Zero tell us anything about how we can short circuit the most destructive parts of these reflexes to get some sense of our autonomy back?
JOSHUA EPSTEIN: I think the short answer is know thyself. It helps you understand that you're driven by forces you may not be aware of. You're driven by others who are also unaware of their own drives. And it's one way of formalizing that mathematically and implementing it in software and seeing what happens. And what happens is often disturbing and realistic and sometimes hopeful and sometimes not. But it's not what you expect. And at the very least, it's a serious way beyond the rational actor which has not performed well in explaining lots of things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Josh thank you very much.
JOSHUA EPSTEIN: Thank you, pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Joshua Epstein is the director of the Agent-Based Modeling Lab and a professor of epidemiology at NYU and author of Agent Zero: Toward Neurocognitive Foundations for Generative Social Science.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Socrates, his student Plato records, said, 'to know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.' Socrates, an impious elitist, also said, 'the unexamined life, isn't worth living.' Socrates you may know detested Athenian democracy. He didn't believe that the uneducated should get anywhere near a ballot box. And of course the authors of the Federalist Papers agreed to a degree which is why they proposed a representative democracy rather than a direct one. Socrates, an infuriatingly arrogant character also said, 'I know that, I know nothing.' And maybe we can't know. We can only strive to make democracy work, until it works no longer. Let him that would move the world first move himself. Yeah. Socrates.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's it for this week's show On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Asthaa Chaturvedi. We had more help from Samantha Maldonado. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Or engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Han. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On The Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Bob Garfield will be back next week, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: On the Media is supported by the Ford Foundation the John S. and JamesL. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.