Psycho History

In 1900, when Jules Verne wrote about submarines and moon travel, it would have seemed unbelievable. Today it is so common. One day, same might be true of Isaac Asimov's ideas regarding space travel, robots and psycho-history. Psycho-history has been one concept that has fascinated me like no other. So in this post I am going to write about psycho history. First let me explain the concept as described by Asimov and then move on to why I think it could be feasible.

Psycho history is a science that mathematically models human history based on the psychology of groups of people. Then this model can be extrapolated to predict the future. He gives an analogy from physics. Whereas the motion of a single molecule can not be predicted, thermodynamics predicts the properties of a gas enclosed in a container, which is actually an aggregate of molecules and the property of the gas is the average of the motion of all the molecules. So the average is predictable. Same is the case with societies. An individual's behavior can not be predicted but the net results arising out of the aggregate behavior of a large group of humans should be predictable. This is what psycho-history seeks to do. For instance, say for a certain event to occur, there needs to be certain type of individuals in the society. It might not be possible to predict who would be those individuals. But given the prevailing social conditions, the number of such individuals can be predictable and they would precipitate the change in the society. Thus society's future can be predicted with the accuracy going down as we go more and more into the future as the prediction regarding the next state is based on the previous state and errors begin to multiply. Similarly higher number of individuals tend to make the model more accurate as is the case with throwing of a fair coin where it is more likely to get 50% heads and 50% tails when the number of throws increases.

Other authors who seem to substantiate this view are Leo Tolstoy, Karl Marx and Plato. Leo Tolstoy in his book 'War and Peace' tries to point out that emergence of Napoleon was inevitable given the social conditions in France. If the individual called Napoleon had not been there, some other individual would have filled that spot in the history. But history would have remained the same. In the words of Shakespeare "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players". If one player does not play his role, another would play the part but the show would go on. Men many come and men may go but history flows on. Napoleon's actions were not that of an individual but the will of the French nation of that time.

Karl Marx presents similar views in his conception of historic necessity. Plato in his seminal work 'The Republic' explains the four kinds of societies and how one society would lead to another - starting with the rule of the philosopher kings to an armed aristocracy followed by a plutocracy , then a democracy and finally a tyranny. He has said that so many years ago and we can see the evidence today. The time millenniums before Christ was time of philosopher kings with prosperity and civilization flourishing in Greece, India and China where knowledge and wisdom was of prime importance. The Hindu sages of India, The Confucianism philosophers in China and Greek Philosophers are the people we remember from those times. Then came the armed aristocracy with the rise of Macedonian Greece under Alexander the Great, followed by the Romans and then the Christian and Islamic Kings of the Crusades and so on. . Current age is a plutarchy, where money and big corporations rule the roost. There is a joke of the early 90's about George Bush Sr. meeting God and saying I am the president of the most powerful nation. God says come and it to my left. Gorbachev comes and says he is the president of the second most powerful nation. He is asked to it to his left. Then Bill Gates comes. When asked for his credentials, he tells God "You are sitting in my seat". Such is the power of business men. Once can see traces of breaking down of this order and tendency towards a world democracy with emergence of technologies like the internet that empower the individuals. At individual country levels democracy has become the norm. At that level, one can see people getting fed up with the indecisiveness inherent in democracy and one can expect to see dictators emerging in many countries in years to come. I have just touched Plato's idea cursorily. Maybe I shall discuss them in detail in another post.

So much for the evidence from past philosophers. Now we will see what kinds of currently available mathematical tools can help us in establishing this model. Game theory would be pivotal. Game theory can predict the results of interactions of competing entities. For the uninitiated watch out for a post where I present my understanding of game theory. Concepts like genetic algorithms help model more complex situations. Some of the latest concepts like stochastic calculus that are used in attempting to predict movement of stock markets may also find use.

Before I conclude let me return to Asimov and give an example of prediction from one of his books. Consider a small nation having certain minimum military prowess next to a huge country that is bigger than a critical size. One can say with certainty that the small nation is safe. Consider the following cases. The big kingdom is ruled by an emperor and there is a viceroy at the frontier. So viceroy has to take initiative to attack the small kingdom. Consider various possibilities.

Case 1: Weak Emperor, Weak Viceroy - Viceroys need to consolidate their own positions. So they will not go for adventures.
Case 2: Strong emperor, Weak Viceroy - Again Viceroy will not go for adventure as he has to consolidate his own position.
Case 3: Weak Emperor, Strong Viceroy - Viceroy is likely to reap greater gains by focusing his attention on usurping his own kingdom overthrowing the Emperor rather than outside the kingdom
Case 4: Strong Emperor, Strong Viceroy- If the emperor allows such ambitious viceroys to grow his own position would be under threat eventually and he would have never become a strong emperor. So he would have such a viceroy removed.

Now we have a case where Emperor himself leads the attack. That is possible only if big kingdom is less than a critical size. Else while Emperor is fighting at the borders, there can be a rebellion within the kingdom.

And so we have our prediction that a kingdom beyond a particular critical mass can not attack other kingdoms.


HR said...

Nice Blog Raven.

shailraghuvanshi said...

Hi There!

You have a great blog. Keep at it.

Best Wishes,

saikat mbka ghosh said...

nice interesting post ,, really liked d explanation of the psycho history concept :)
got sumthng new to learn today :)

themoonstone said...

Very interesting ! Have not read Asimov and neither had a clue about psychohistory. It sounds very intriguing.
So how his model been used to predict the future and have those conclusions been validated ?

The Fool said...

Thanks saikat.

The Fool said...

Its not real, moonstone. It is science fiction. Though it is described to seem like real. It was my dream to make something like this. In the past things described in science fiction by HG Wells and Jules Verne have turned into reality.

Suresh Chandrasekaran said...

Ah! A breadth of ideas in one post, TF! Good read.

umashankar said...

Thanks for refreshing Hari Seldon and his cherished science. You have traced an interesting streak through centuries and various forms of empires. I have also believed in the concept to certain extent. There is the tale from Panchtantra where the chief of the monkeys flourishing in a King's court advises his gang to flee to the forest. His reasoning was simple. The king, being a lover of animals, had all kinds of creatures in his palace. There was a certain ram that would steals its way to the kitchen and try to grab a morsel of whatever he could find. The cook being an angry man would throw whatever he could lay his hand to. the chief of the monkey reasoned that oen of the days the cook is going to fling a burning wood at the sheep that would surely catch fire and would naturally rush to the stables to douse the flames by rolling on the hay. That would set the stables on fire seriously hurting the horses that were the most favourite possession of the king and as per the scriptures, best ointment to burn injuries is monkey's flesh.

Indeed, that is what happened.

The Fool said...

Thanks Suresh. Hope it was not an overkill.

The Fool said...

Thanks for sharing the story, Umashankar. I do know the story. It is a good example that fits the context.

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