Sociology Professor Arnout van de Rijt Awarded NSF Grant for Research

Arnout van de Rijt, an associate professor in Stony Brook University’s Department of Sociology and the Institute for Advanced Computational Science (IACS), has been awarded a $275,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for his project, “Field Experiments and Formal Models of Arbitrary Social Inequality.” His research focuses on success-breeds-success dynamics and suggests that many successes that individuals experience are a direct result of prior success, and not intrinsic quality or merit.

Some social scientists have proposed that one fortunate success may trigger another, the idea that success breeds success, thus producing significant degrees of arbitrary distinction between similar individuals. But evidencing this theory has been difficult because sociologists can only observe a single run of history; they cannot go back and see if the same people attain very different levels of success a second time around.

“In this NSF-funded research we overcome this problem of empirical inference through in vivo experimentation,” said van de Rijt. “We sprinkle early successes at random over a population and see if the fortunate recipients end up being more successful subsequently. Because randomization ensures that the recipients are equally talented as the non-recipients, we know that any advantage the former subsequently experience relative to the latter must be due to the operation of a success-breeds-success effect. The larger this difference, the greater the extent to which successes occur arbitrarily as an accident of history.”

Preliminary results of his research show that when different kinds of successes (money, awards, endorsements and quality ratings) are given to arbitrarily selected recipients, all produce significant improvements in subsequent rates of success as compared to the control group of non-recipients.

For the success-breeds-success experiments, van de Rijt is working on a computational interface that through the Internet can automatically allocate successes to large numbers of arbitrary persons and automatically record their subsequent successes. These new computing and information technologies available at Stony Brook’s IACS provide unique opportunities for social scientists to conduct research that wasn’t possible before. “The new Institute for Advanced Computational Science does not only provide the necessary tools for such research but also brings together scholars and students from different sciences for cross-fertilization of ideas about how to use them most creatively,” he added.

“My hope is that this success will breed further success,” said van de Rijt. “I am lucky to have a team of very talented graduate students helping me, including junior sociologists Michael Restivo, Idil Akin and Hyang-Gi Song, as well as computational scientist Hua Mo. My goal is to grow this new area of sociological research, get more graduate students interested, attract more government and industry funding for it, and expand the community of scholars on campus engaged in this new, exciting field of computational social science.”

van de Rijt received the 2010 Freeman Award for Distinguished Junior Scholarship and several best article awards for his contributions to social network analysis. His research has been published in American Sociological Review and American Journal of Sociology.

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