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social simulation

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

Social simulation is the application of computer-based methods and technologies to replicate human social behavior in various environments and scenarios.

Social simulations are used for various research purposes throughout the social sciences, including psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, political science and history. In business, simulations are used for research in areas including human resources management (HRM), security, reputation management and social media marketing (SMM).

A simulation, in this context, is a computer program that represents a social process or scenario. In the most common implementation, researchers design the program to model a social situation or process and then observe the behavior of individuals in the simulation when the program runs. Commonly, simulations are used to yield predictive data about what might happen in a real-world situation. Social simulations are also used to develop and test theories and to understand the implications of human behavior.

Topics studied through social simulations have included:

  • Development of social conventions and norms.
  • Foundations of morality.
  • Effects of reputation in a competitive environment.
  • Dissemination of knowledge.
  • Development of socially desirable behaviors.

There are four main types of social simulations:

  • System-level simulations (SLS) - Explore a given situation as a whole and how individuals and groups respond to the presence of certain variables.
  • System-level modeling (SLM) - Creates a more complex and sophisticated environment and aims to be able to make predictions about the behavior of any individual entity or thing within the simulation.
  • Agent-based social simulation(ABSS) - Models societies on intelligent agents and studies their behavior within the simulated environment for the application to real-world situations.
  • Agent-based modeling (ABM) - Involves independent agents with individual-specific behaviors interacting in networks.

Computer simulations offer a middle ground between the descriptive approach, which simply documents observations about human behavior and social processes, and the experimental approach, which establishes a real-world representation of some situation for research purposes.

This was last updated in August 2017

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