UA Little Rock student researching how opinions are formed, manipulated

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock doctoral student, Zachary Stine, has presented research on how opinions can be formed, influenced, and changed during the Computational Social Science Conference held Oct. 19-22 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock doctoral student has presented research on how opinions can be formed, influenced, and changed during the Computational Social Science Conference held Oct. 19-22 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Zachary Stine, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in computer and information sciences, presented his research study, “An Agent-Based Approach to Studying the Relationship between Ingroup Bias, Signaling, and Ideological Change.”

Computational Social Science is a scientific discipline where computational methods, data analysis, and simulation models of social dynamics are employed to offer new insights into social phenomena beyond what is available with traditional social science methods.

In the first part of the research, Stine and his advisor, Dr. Nitin Agarwal, UA Little Rock Jerry L. Maulden-Entergy endowed chair and a professor of information science, set up a simulation demonstrating how the opinions of the artificial population are driven by intergroup dynamics. In the simulation, the subjects modify their opinions based on whether the person who gives the opinion is a part of the ingroup (us) or outgroup (them).

Stine is working to understand how cognitive biases affect the difficulty of changing a person’s opinion. The next phase of the research involves developing strategies to manipulate the opinions of the artificial population in the simulation by exploring their group dynamics, or their us-vs.-them mentality.

“Now, these experiments are taking place within an artificial society that is much less complex than actual human societies,” Stine said. “However, there is still big potential for this simulation to have applications in the real world. By observing the opinion dynamics in this worst-case-scenario population, we can draw conclusions about the opinion dynamics in our own societies and identify how they might be manipulated.”

At UA Little Rock, Stine works as a graduate research assistant in the Information Science department and previously worked as a research associate in the Office of Institutional Research.

After he graduates in 2021, Stine plans to work as a professor researching information theory, network science, and agent-based modeling and simulation. He is thankful to his mentors for helping him pursue his education and research goals.

“I have several mentors here at UA Little Rock and elsewhere, including my advisor, Dr. Nitin Agarwal,” Stine said. “Though they have each helped me in unique ways, they have all pushed me to challenge my assumptions and preconceptions about some subject, which has been invaluable as I do research where assumptions can be dangerous.”

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