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Mood Matters: From Rising Skirt Lengths to the Collapse of World Powers

Casti, John L.
Springer-Verlag: Berlin, 2010
ISBN 9783642048340 (pb)

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Reviewed by Guillaume Deffuant
Cemagref-LISC (Laboratoire d'Ingénierie des Systèmes Complexes), Aubière, France

Cover of book This book advocates the theses of "Socionomics". Robert Prechter, the founder of this field, is famous for having predicted the 1987 crack and the recent financial crisis. These successes excite curiosity and interest. Moreover, the author of the book, John Casti, is senior researcher at the IIASA in Vienna, a research centre of good reputation, which lets the reader expect a serious scientific background.

Unfortunately, in my view, these promises are not kept. If some parts of the book strongly drove my interest with their audacious non conventional thinking, my global impression has been spoiled because of claims to anticipate the future of very complex phenomena using too simplistic means and without any scientific rigour.

Socionomics rely on a "copernician" move: events in society are not the cause of changes of social mood, this is the opposite. Take the Enron bankruptcy for instance. Many observers thought that the Enron scandal frightened the investors which drove the market down. But a closer look to the data shows that the market was down already about one year before the Enron scandal. Hence the more convincing interpretation is that this decline of stock price dried up the firm's lines of credit and then led to its collapse. Moreover, the bad social mood required a scapegoat, and Enron was a perfect candidate. Therefore, the bad social mood led to the Enron scandal, not the opposite. Other examples: Even events like 9/11 or the assassination of the US president Kennedy don't have a clear effect on the social mood, as metered by the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) or Standard and Poor's 500 Indices. To summarise: Events don't matter, social mood only does.

I found this theoretical part of the book rather appealing. By its uncommon stance, it triggers interest, reminding some debates in cognitive science about the "methodological solipsism", and some evidences in the data are convincing.

What about the dynamics of social mood then? The social mood is established through interactions between individuals. It is simply endogenously driven, and goes in cycles. When there is hope, the mood is rising, until it reaches a peak (hubris), then it is declining under fear, until it reaches a bottom (despair). How do these cycles take place? Well, I didn't find it clearly explained in the book, and this is quite annoying, because it's the mechanism behind everything.

After presenting the theoretical principles, the book goes on with several chapters about their application to concrete cases. It starts with fashion, movies and music, then considers wars, economic cycles and political crises, and finishes with the rise and fall of great powers. In all cases, John Casti tries to demonstrate that social mood cycles are the main driver of the studied social phenomena.

The approach is rather convincing for fashion in general, with a good correlation of the length of skirts, preferred colours, movies and music with the social mood metered with the DJIA. But I could not follow when the social mood was claimed to be a major explanation of complex socio-political developments. Indeed, it seems to me that complex socio-political events are rather influenced by a general social perception, including values and a vision of the world of the social actors. For instance, many historians argue that the development of the nation state in Europe played an important role in the unprecedented mobilisation for World War I. The generation of French young men of that time grew up with the objective of the revenge to get Alsace Lorraine back. The huge importance of the nation in the identity of the actors seems to me one aspect (among others) of the spirit of the time which is more relevant than simply the mood for understanding the course of events. Moreover, it is clear that the events do have an impact on such shared social visions of the world. For instance, it is largely agreed that the experience of World War I has been decisive in preparing a new vision which made totalitarian regimes possible and appealing to a large part of the European population. Hence in this example, the vision is more important than the mood and the vision is influenced by the events. Both points are in contradiction with the main hypotheses of Socionomics.

To conclude, I think that John Casti uses Socionomics in contexts where it is not relevant, and doing so, he dangerously projects multi-dimensional complex phenomena on the single dimension of mood. Sad to say with John Casti, after his influential past books: this one has little chance to convince JASSS readers!


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