Diffusion studies investigate the propagation of behavior, attitudes, or beliefs across a networked population. Some behavior is binary, e.g., whether or not to install solar panels, while other behavior is continuous, e.g., wastefulness with plastic. Similarly, attitudes and beliefs often allow nuance, but can become practically binary in polarized environments. We argue that this property of behavior and attitudes – whether they are binary or continuous – should critically affect whether a population becomes homogenous in its adoption of that behavior. Models show that only continuous behavior converges across a network. Specifically, binary behavior allows local convergence, as multiple states can be local majorities. Continuous behavior becomes uniform across the network through a logic of communicating vessels. We present a model comparing the diffusion of both types of behavior and report on a laboratory experiment that tests it. In the model, actors have to distribute an investment over two options, while a majority receives information that points to the optimal option and a minority receives misguided information that points toward the other option. We predict that when adjacent persons receive misguided information this can hinder convergence toward optimal investment behavior in small networked groups, especially when subjects cannot split their investment, i.e., binary choice. Results falsify our theoretical predictions: Although investment decisions are significantly negatively affected by local majorities only in the binary condition, this difference with the continuous condition is not itself significant. Binary and continuous behavior therefore achieve comparable incidences of optimal investment in the experiment. The failure of the theoretical predictions appears due to a substantial level of error in decision-making, which prevents local majorities from locking in on a suboptimal behavior.
The authors would like to especially thank Kasper Otten and Rita Jiao who helped with carrying out the experiment in the ELSE lab.
Schneider, P.T., Buskens, V. and van de Rijt, A. (2023), "The Diffusion of Binary Versus Continuous Behavior on Social Networks", Kalkhoff, W., Thye, S.R. and Lawler, E.J. (Ed.) Advances in Group Processes (Advances in Group Processes, Vol. 40), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 91-113. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0882-614520230000040005
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