Dartmouth news has an interesting piece about a mathematics professor, Feng Fu, who is trying to develop a mathematics of altruism: “how to promote cooperation in the most general sense, using very theoretical mathematical models to look at how to prompt people to be kind to each other.”

Fu’s work looks at the effects of “social contagion” on vaccine acceptance. Although the term contagion sounds negative rather than positive, it can be either. It refers to the effect of influencers within social networks. Fu is developing algorithms to examine ways to target influencers to act as social contagions to promote vaccine use by the broader community.

“This kind of public good thinking is so important for public health. Essentially it is a public good. If we don’t maintain and properly uphold such public good, society cannot escape the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ because we always have social antagonisms. Eventually we will all be affected by such lack of public good, whether it manifests as in-group, out-group hatred, the spread of infectious diseases, or a decrease in the effectiveness of antibiotics.”

The internet and social media have amplified these problems, Fu says. Social media companies use algorithms to amplify and intensify individuals’ consumption behavior and beliefs with the goal of maximizing the amount of time and the number of clicks for each user. The motivation is not social good, but profit, he says.

Interesting stuff. The whole article is here.

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