Policy takes little account of human habits

Gepubliceerd op
23 januari 2019

Policy makers should take the habits of citizens into account much more than they do. Top-down legislation and policies are not effective enough when it comes to regulating human actions, because the informal sector and social behaviour lead to unintended side-effects, such as tax evasion, nuisance parking and climate change. This is what Gert Jan Hofstede proposed at his inauguration as professor (holding a personal chair) at Wageningen University & Research on 17 January.

In his inaugural speech 'Artificial sociality - Simulating the social mind', Professor Hofstede described how society at large organises itself, and how this self-organisation is the result of the step-by-step activity of individuals in society, without this being subject to any central coordination. A good illustration of this is the emergence of informal paths on an open field between houses – so-called elephant paths, which usually have a winding character. You can simulate this kind of bottom-up self-organising systems in a computer programme, proposed Professor Hofstede. “A route walked even just once across a field gets followed: other walkers prefer to walk along these tracks because the predecessors have smoothed the path a bit. Our simulation models show that the trajectory can fade if there are only a few people walking it, or remain straight if more people do so, while intensive use creates a curvy route that retains its structure even if the reason for curves (such as bypassing a puddle) has been removed. The system has a memory, even if the people in it have none.” This phenomenon can be seen on many roads in Europe that have a long history traceable back to Roman times.

Elephant Paths in Society

Elephant paths seem to be a marginal phenomenon. “But every policy-relevant system is at least partly the result of self-organisation,” according to Professor Hofstede. He names as examples the setting of a maximum speed on roads, or parking regulations in cities, to show how people adapt their behaviour to new circumstances. Motorists inform each other about speed cameras, and car drivers quickly discover the streets just outside the centre where they can park for free. By the same token, multi-national companies turn to countries with the lowest taxes, children buy a hamburger from the shopping centre if the school cafeteria only offers healthy food, and British people vote for Brexit. What these deviations have in common is that they happen even if no one actually wanted them – which is why official rules are not sufficient, argues Professor Hofstede. “If you are a policy maker, you need to know the system before you make a policy. That means understanding the motives of individual behaviour; the collective effect of that behaviour can lead to unintended consequences.”


In his research Professor Hofstede focuses on these social simulations as a means to map artificial sociality (vs. artificial intelligence). “When researchers model human behaviour (e.g. in economic models), they tend to concentrate on artificial intelligence. But the relationship between individuals (‘I follow you’) and the behaviour of the collective (the elephant paths) is systematically ignored.”

He makes a point of adding these elements in his simulation models. For example, this kind of model teaches farmers to deal with a limited supply of clean drinking water or water for irrigation. The model shows what the conscious and unconscious behaviour of the individual means to the collective, because people know to which groups they belong, but not what unwritten rules apply in these systems. As an individual you are guided, mostly unconsciously.