Ultrametricity increases the predictability of cultural dynamics

A quantitative understanding of societies requires useful combinations of empirical data and mathematical models. Models of cultural dynamics aim at explaining the emergence of culturally homogeneous groups through social influence. Traditionally, the initial cultural traits of individuals are chosen uniformly at random, the emphasis being on characterizing the model outcomes that are independent of these (`annealed') initial conditions. Here, motivated by an increasing interest in forecasting social behavior in the real world, we reverse the point of view and focus on the effect of specific (`quenched') initial conditions, including those obtained from real data, on the final cultural state. We study the predictability, rigorously defined in an information-theoretic sense, of the social content of the final cultural groups (i.e. who ends up in which group) from the knowledge of the initial cultural traits. We find that, as compared to random and shuffled initial conditions, the hierarchical ultrametric-like organization of empirical cultural states significantly increases the predictability of the final social content by largely confining cultural convergence within the lower levels of the hierarchy. Moreover, predictability correlates with the compatibility of short-term social coordination and long-term cultural diversity, a property that has been recently found to be strong and robust in empirical data. We also introduce a null model generating initial conditions that retain the ultrametric representation of real data. Using this ultrametric model, predictability is highly enhanced with respect to the random and shuffled cases, confirming the usefulness of the empirical hierarchical organization of culture for forecasting the outcome of social influence models.


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