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Threshold Models of Collective Behavior

American Journal of Sociology

Models of collective behavior are developed for situations where actors have two alternatives and the costs and/or benefits of each depend on how many other actors choose which alternative. The key concept is that of "threshold": the number or proportion of others who must make one decision before a given actor does so; this is the point where net benefits begin to exceed net costs for that particular actor. Beginning with a frequency distribution of thresholds, the models allow calculation of the ultimate or "equilibrium" number making each decision. The stability of equilibrium results against various possible changes in threshold distributions is considered. Stress is placed on the importance of exact distributions distributions for outcomes. Groups with similar average preferences may generate very different results; hence it is hazardous to infer individual dispositions from aggregate outcomes or to assume that behavior was directed by ultimately agreed-upon norms. Suggested applications are to riot behavior, innovation and rumor diffusion, strikes, voting, and migration. Issues of measurement, falsification, and verification are discussed.