Social Dynamics

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Social dynamics is the study of how social systems change over time, with a focus on macro, recurring patterns of change that emerge out of the local interactions between agents. Social dynamics uses various mathematical and computational models and is closely related to social physics, computational sociology being often seen as part of the domain of complexity science. The field is closely aligned with system dynamics, with both being concerned with changes over time that can be described through the model of feedback loops. In its most general definition, social dynamics deals with the laws, forces, and phenomena of change in society.[1]

System Dynamics

The system dynamics modeling paradigm is used for analyzing complex systems in many different areas, it is part of systems theory as such it takes a holistic perspective on a system’s development over time trying to capture the basic causal interactions that drive its long-term pattern of development. System dynamics is another nonlinear modeling framework as it is very much focused on these feedback loops. There are just two types of feedback loops positive and negative, that both affect social systems development over time. Negative feedback involves some balancing mechanism, meaning what happens now will get balanced out by something that happens in the future, thus there is some counteracting force that will hold the system within some limiting parameter values. For example if a person takes out a loan they will now have lots of money, but this is being counterbalanced by what they will have to pay back in the future. This counter balancing creates a steady flow within the system, whatever is being gained is being lost again at some future stage, thus we do not get a build up of large accumulations within the system. Negative feedback is an inherent control mechanism, a system governed by this negative feedback can be said to be under control.[2]


We get positive feedback when the system starts to move in one direction without a counterbalancing force being exerted, through this positive feedback we get nonlinear exponential change and the system is now out of control. Nonlinear change and nonequilibrium are a product of some broken negative feedback, this means the system is not paying the full price for its operation, there is some free source of energy being imported to the system and/or entropy is being exported to the system’s environment. As an example we might think about the huge change within human society as we moved into the modern era, human society, demographics and economic output remained relatively stable for thousands of years due to the fact that it was fueled by manual labour that represents a negative feedback loop, in order to produce physical resources you had to do physical work thus you are taking from your own stock of resources, in order to get more you had to give more, thus balancing each other and maintaining some equilibrium. With the rise of modern technologies and the use of petroleum we have broken this negative feedback loop, we now no longer have to do all of this manual labor, and this has lead, among other factors, to exponential growth driven by this positive feedback loop.  But of course as we know, these fossil fuels and modern systems of technology are creating negative externalities.[3]

Negative Externalities

This positive feedback happens because of some externality, the coast is being borne by someone or something else, meaning that the counterbalancing force is being in some way externalized from the system. We could take the recent financial crisis due to subprime mortgages as an example, within any financial security their is both a risk and a return, this creates the negative feedback loop, the more return you want the more risk you are going to have to take and this is a balancing mechanism. But with these toxic assets, the risk was being externalized, those who were making a return by supplying the assets were not bearing the true risk, the risk was being externalized to some third party, they were paying the cost of running the system by bearing that risk. This externality created a strong incentive for those supplying the assets to overproduce and this is the foundations of where we get the rapid growth from.

As another example we could cite the Matthew effect where the rich get richer, there is clearly a positive feedback loop here, the more you have the more you will get, the more popular a book, video or piece of music is the more people will want it and experiments have shown that this may be simply due to its popularity not because of any inherent quality of that item. There is though a negative externality here, this excess attention that is given to these items is being taken from others, new books, videos or music will find it more difficult to gain traction and thus the overall level of meritocracy in the system will be reduced and thus the overall quality will be reduced. This positive feedback and negative externality mechanism is a pervasive phenomenon within socio-cultural systems. As an example within psychology we might think about the phenomenon of confirmation bias, which is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities, there is a positive feedback loop as these hypotheses are self-fulfilling and there is a negative externality in that they are excluding other alternatives.[4]

Path Dependency

This positive feedback dynamic coupled with negative externalities ultimately works to disintegrate the environment or context within which the system operates, thus reducing its sustainability. These positive feedback loops combined with negative externalities are a key source of path dependency, as positive feedback creates a strong attractor towards a certain behavior, while negative externalities work to degrade other possibilities and options, creating a lock-in effect, making it more and more difficult to choose some other path.

Positive feedback makes it easier to do more of the same while negative externalities reduce the development of other options. What this means is inertia, which is the resistance to change. that we stay doing the same thing and become more incapable of doing other things. Learning a new language might be an example of this, it is not so difficult for a child to learn a second language as they are growing up, but the further you go down the path of speaking just one language the better you get at it and the more difficult it becomes to learn another, this is path dependency. As the system develops it gets more efficient at exploiting or processing a particular resource but also more dependent upon this single resource creating a lock-in effect.[5]


This dynamic of positive feedback and negative externalities works to insulate and protect the system from disturbances from its environment, groupthink reduces the social system’s exposure to external ideas that might disturb the consensus, confirmation bias reduces the exposure of our hypothesis to disconfirmation, our store of petroleum enables us to create artificial environments independent from the natural environment. When we reduce the disturbance during the system’s development, we increase the tightening of the coupling within the system, connections become stronger and as it develops they become denser. A system that is moving towards a critical point has a high degree of connectivity and interdependence between its subunits this is called high percolation, where percolation can be understood as simply the density of the connections within the system.[6]

A good example of this is research done on forest fires in California, which has shown that if the forest receives fewer disturbances, that is to say, if we reduce the number of small frequent fires, then the density of trees within the ecosystem builds up, it becomes more tightly coupled, as the percolation increases, this creates more pathways for the fire to spread from tree to tree. As this percolation becomes denser the system reaches a point from where any small fire can now spread through the whole forest, creating a large systemic effect and this is what we call criticality, the system has reached a critical point.[7]


The term critical in mathematics and physics relates to or denotes a point of transition from one state to another, these critical points before a transition are studied within the domain of nonlinear dynamics called catastrophe theory. Catastrophe theory studies dramatic changes within the system’s topology, the most famous of which being what is called the cusp curve where the topology dramatically folds back on itself, creating a cliff like structure.[8]

A system is then said to be critical if its state changes dramatically given some small change in an input value to a control parameter. Once the system reaches its critical point even the smallest perturbation can have major consequences and this is uncontrollable, as the system becomes more critical its eventual collapse become greater and its eventual transformation becomes more inevitable but less predictable. It is inevitable because any small event can trigger it at this stage, but because it is in this critical state and so many small events can trigger this transformation we do not know which one will or when they will.

Beyond the critical point we get some runaway effect, a tipping point has been passed and the system moves into a phase transition as it is now irreversibly moving into a new state, at this stage the system becomes extremely nonlinear, cause and effect break down almost completely, massive direct interventions within the system can have very negligible effect, you as a government can put billions into the market buying up toxic assets and only have a negligible effect on the price. Because the failure is distributed out any small event can trigger a large systemic effect, in this situation, there is no real possibility for control, previously unknown interconnections, and interdependencies become revealed and random events can determine significant outcomes. This is what is called societal collapse, the system is moving to a lower state of functionality as the social structure breaks down.

Self-Organizing Criticality

This whole social dynamic of positive feedback driving exponential growth and decay is a form of what is called self-organized criticality, which is a property of nonlinear dynamical systems that have a critical point as an attractor. Another good example of this would be the tragedy of the commons, where each individual is driven through a positive feedback loop to overuse the commons with the negative externalities from this destroying the whole resource and leading to the collapse, this is self-organizing criticality because it is the way the dynamic is set up that attracts the agents towards pursuing agendas that lead to a macro level critical outcome.

1. Wikiwand. (2020). Social dynamics | Wikiwand. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Dec. 2020].

2. Forrester, J. (2009). Some Basic Concepts in System Dynamics. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Dec. 2020].

3. Google Books. (2010). Self-Organization in Nonequilibrium Systems. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Dec. 2020].

4. Google Books. (2010). The Matthew Effect. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Dec. 2020].

5. (2020). [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Dec. 2020].

6. Rickles, D., Hawe, P. and Shiell, A. (2007). A simple guide to chaos and complexity. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, [online] 61(11), pp.933–937. Available at: [Accessed 2 Dec. 2020].

7. Thompson, I., Mackey, B. and Mcnulty, S. (2009). CBD Technical Series No. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity Forest Resilience, Biodiversity, and Climate Change A Synthesis of the Biodiversity/Resilience/ Stability Relationship in Forest Ecosystems Produced with financial assistance f. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Dec. 2020].


8. Robbin, J.W. (2013). Chaos and Complexity Seminar Thom’s Catastrophe Theory and Zeeman’s model of the Stock Market. [online] Available at:

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