November 27, 2021
Group Dynamics - Neil Johnson

Photo: University of Miami Communications

"No one could ever predict who will be in the traffic jam on U.S. 1 here tomorrow. But I can predict there will be one."

Research Florida - Field Experts

Group Dynamics - Neil Johnson

Lilly Rockwell | 5/27/2014

Florida Trend: You are a physicist who studies complex behaviors. What does that mean?

Physics professor
University of Miami

Complex behaviors. Johnson is known for developing a mathematical equation that helps predict when insurgents will strike in places like Afghanistan.

Research dollars earned at UM
$1.0 million

Neil Johnson: The study of group dynamics even in psychology is a relatively new field. Can a crowd do better at predicting something and solving something? We’re always saying crowds are dumb and people behave like sheep. But there really is a kind of unknown about the psychology of a crowd. The unexpected can happen — and that is where I get interested. Just as the unexpected happens when you put particles together, the unexpected happens when you put people together.

FT: Given that human behavior is unpredictable, is it even possible to predict their behavior through math?

NJ: Absolutely. When you look at collective behavior. No one could ever predict who will be in the traffic jam on U.S. 1 here tomorrow. But I can predict there will be one. Statistically there is always one at the same time. By looking at large big data sets this study has become possible.

FT: Tell me about the work you are doing studying how to predict when insurgents will attack.

NJ: We didn’t start with any assumptions about whether insurgents are rational or not rational. We just looked at the data. This type of study has only been possible recently because of media reporting events. They report by the day. We looked across many, many different conflicts and areas of insurgency. The reason we think there are these patterns is that even though people are different, with different language and geography, we study the way people interact. In this case, a state with some kind of incumbent security force and some kind of loose group of opposition we call a “red.” It’s a normally weak side picking aside at some bigger entity.

That weaker entity we call red is more agile and more adaptable. We think the reason we are seeing a trend is we are seeing the interaction between these two sets of groups — the insurgents and the people they are fighting against. It’s very much like a sporting event. It might be hard to say what one particular team is like but against the same opponent over time they lock into some kind of particular behavior. The same pattern of behavior can be observed.

FT: What else have you studied, besides insurgent attacks?

NJ: One thing we’re really interested in is the startup world. How is it that a startup can best attack a market which is dominated by some costly, rigid but large entity? Is it the way at which they can pick away at this larger entity? If they face them from front, like in a battle, they will get wiped out. There must be some other way they can pick away at larger entities and survive and be successful. It is a very, very strong analogy.

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