Social Mood and Complexity Overload

Excerpts from the book Confronting Complexity: X-Events, Resilience, and Human Progress by

John L. Casti

Roger D. Jones

Michael J. Pennock



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On the night of November 12, 1993 at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Royce Gracie was the last man standing in an eight-man martial arts tournament, which is now known as “The Beginning.” These fights were more like a street brawl with no rules, other than no biting and no eye-gouging. This tournament was televised on pay-TV, and served to introduce the new phenomenon of “ultimate fighting,” which turns out to have a huge world- wide following, as evidenced that by 2011 the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was estimated to be worth around $2 billion by Forbes magazine. Commentators have noted that the fascination with this form of combat dates back to ancient Greek and Roman gladiators who fought in the Roman Colosseum and elsewhere for the entertainment of spectators. It would appear that over the last several millennia people have not lost the urge to see violent combat between two humans engaged in a battle to the death. These ultimate fights serve as extreme examples of both complexity mismatches and social mood bias at the level of individual interaction. Let’s see why.

At the 1993 Denver tournament, spectators were astonished to see Royce Gracie come out as the winner since he was both smaller and lighter than all the other fighters. But Gracie employed a fighting style developed in Japan called “jujitsu,” which turned out to be superior to what all the other competitors were using. So with these skills Gracie prevailed and set the stage for what was to follow over the next couple of decades. Complexity theorists will recognize that what was going on that night in Denver was an interaction between two systems (Gracie and his opponent), each of whom possessed a certain level of complexity (different fighting techniques they could employ). But Gracie’s complexity level was simply greater than the level available to the competition, sufficiently greater to push the complexity mismatch to a level at which Gracie could easily prevail despite his lighter weight and smaller size than his opponents.

As for social mood bias, that is a property more of the spectators at the Ultimate Fighting events than the participants. At the time of the Denver “Beginning” in 1993, the social mood as measured by the Dow Jones Industrial Average was setting a new record high. It was a time for expansion, joining together and exploring new forms of activity—including fighting. But by 2010 the UFC was participating in the turn of social mood to the negative, and its $2 billion valuation from Forbes in 2011 had shrunk by half in 2012—a 50 percent devaluation. But as the financial markets moved upward at a dizzying rate in 2013 and the first half of 2014, so did the fortunes of UFC, which at the time of writing is again valued at about $2 billion. Such is the power of social mood to move mountains (of flesh, in this case).

The same sorts of arguments regarding complexity and social mood also apply to the activities of groups rather than individuals. Here’s an example.

In times of negative social mood when a population believes tomorrow will be worse than today, there is a natural inclination to put off having children. A lot of factors enter into such a decision, including fear of losing a job, uncertainty about availability of housing big enough to accommodate another family member, aversion to bringing a child into a world of turmoil, and so forth. But these factors can all be subsumed into the overarching rubric “fear of the future.” An excellent illustration of this line of reason- ing is a 2011 report in the New York Times headlined “Dip in Birth Rates Reflects Recession, Report Suggests.” That report stated that a study by the Pew Research Center showed that birth rates in the United States declined sharply during the recession. Data from 2010 showed a drop to 64.7 births per thousand women in the age group 15–44, from 69.6 per thousand in 2007, the year the recession began. The report showed this declining birth rate phenomenon even more clearly at the regional level. The state of North Dakota, with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country in 2008, was one of only two states (the other was Maine) to show a slight increase in birth rate from 2008 to 2009. On the other hand, Arizona had the highest decline in birth rate, 7.2 percent. Not coincidentally, Arizona was one of the states hardest hit by unemployment during the recession. Interestingly, the report also notes that the only age group that showed an increased birth rate was for women in the 40–44-year-old category. These are women who cannot put off childbirth any longer. So social mood didn’t enter into the choice for them; it was now or never.

Note again that this report was for the period right at the beginning of the Great Recession. Since early 2009 things began to look up, as the social mood meter rose precipitously during the next five years. A 2013 article in Bloomberg News headlined this sea change: “Baby Boom in Stronger States Signals US Birth Recovery.” Not to belabor the point, the article recounts how the birth rate in states like South Dakota, where unemployment is very low, were on the rise causing demographers to anticipate an upturn in the overall birth rate for the entire country.

The foregoing examples show that the drivers of context in social processes, complexity gaps, and social mood can and do affect people in their personal lives at both the individual and group levels. The balance of this chapter will showcase this fact in different areas, ranging from “middle”-type crises to happiness and on to the ever-vexing problem of personal and group inequality.

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