Vicky Chuqiao Yang.

Incoming Omidyar Fellow Vicky Chuqiao Yang is driven by two difficult and seemingly unrelated questions: How do social systems change across scales; and how do we make sense of human irrationality in mathematical models?

Yang, trained as an applied mathematician with a Ph.D. from Northwestern University, will arrive at SFI in September 2018. When a city grows, different social phenomena change at different rates. For instance, Yang has used FBI crime reports to show that the number of robberies per capita, like the number of patents, increase faster than the rate of population growth, while the incidence of rape per capita increased proportionally. Where previous scholars have found this to be a shortcoming of scaling laws, Yang thinks it’s a feature begging for further study.

As to Yang’s second question: Much research on human decision-making assumes that humans are rational and will act in their own best interest. But experimental and empirical research suggests that humans simply don’t behave that way a lot of the time. Yang is looking for ways to incorporate this empirical reality into theoretical models, applying the idea of satisficing — finding an outcome that is “good enough” rather than the best — to voter models.

Yang plans to combine her two interests to better understand how democracy works at different sizes. If we know that properties of cities are different as they increase, and we know that humans have some predictably irrational tendencies, Yang wants to know: what happens when countries with democratic governments increase in size?