across the divide

This simple experiment shows how easy it is for society to become segregated

Some economic models tell us that segregation is inevitable. Is it really?

It seems obvious: if we are tolerant of people who are different from us, then our friends should come from all sections of society, our neighbourhoods should include people from all different races and our workplaces should have a good balance of men and women.

But that’s not how society works. In reality, segregation is widespread: in residential neighbourhoods, at the workplace, in schools, even online. And segregation is not a good thing: people who are physically separated are unlikely to exchange ideas, share resources, or resolve problems. Segregation worsens inequality and conflict.

In the workplace, segregation by gender is one of the culprits for the persistent wage gap between men and women. Likewise, residential segregation by race and social class likely intensified the urban unrest we witnessed in the past decade, including the 2005 French riots, the 2011 riots in England and the recent turmoil in American cities.

Modelling segregation

So does this mean that we are intolerant? Is segregation persistent because people are racist, sexist or bigoted? Not exactly. As the visualisation of New York below shows, segregation looms large even in the most tolerant countries, such as the US, the UK and Sweden.

Racial segregation in New York City.
Racial segregation in New York City.

To explain why segregation might occur in otherwise tolerant societies, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling proposed a model. Schelling imagined a world where two types of individuals (we’ll make them blue and yellow) are randomly located on a flat square world. In Schelling’s model, individuals prefer to have some similar neighbours, but they do not discriminate against different neighbours – in short, they are tolerant. If individuals are unhappy with their neighbourhood, they can freely move to a neighbourhood with a more preferable composition.

In the example below, the yellow individual is unhappy about her assigned location because she does not have enough yellow neighbours, so she decides to move to a new neighbourhood. But when she moves, the composition of both her old and new neighbourhoods change. As a result, an old yellow neighbour and a new blue neighbour also decide to move.

This causes a domino effect that leads neighbourhoods to separate into yellow and blue ghettos. In the end, although no single individual prefers it, everyone ends up in segregated neighbourhoods.

Domino effects in the Schelling model of segregation.
Domino effects in the Schelling model of segregation.

Schelling’s model suggests that people inevitably end up living in a segregated world, even if they are tolerant. Other economists and sociologists have taken this theory one step further, and shown that segregation is likely even if people actively seek diversity. You can test how different models lead to different patterns of segregation using our online simulator, or by playing Parable of the Polygons.

A futile exercise?

These models have a dangerous implication: namely, that public policies which promote openness and tolerance will never improve integration. Some economists went so far as to suggest that “the welfare effect of educating people to have preferences for integration might be adverse” because the “segregated outcome will be unsatisfying for the majority of people”.

Models are one thing, but real people are different. We decided to test different versions of the Schelling model using an interactive game. We went to 20 different high-school classrooms and let the students play a game, which involved moving yellow and blue circles.

We didn’t tell them that they were playing a “segregation” game, we just asked them to follow the rules. Some students were given incentives to find similar neighbours, while others were given incentives to look for mixed neighbourhoods.

In the experiment, students controlled a blue or yellow numbered avatar on a shared screen. They followed rules provided for their ‘preferences’ for the colour of their neighbours.
In the experiment, students controlled a blue or yellow numbered avatar on a shared screen. They followed rules provided for their ‘preferences’ for the colour of their neighbours.

Our results confirm the prediction of Schelling’s original model; that when people are simply tolerant, they still become segregated. But we also found that when people strive for diversity, they are able to achieve integration.

Models and mingles

To understand our results, think about how we behave at a social mingle. People often attempt to optimise the composition of the group they are talking to, trying to get a good mix of different, interesting people around them. But as everyone moves to achieve their own optimised mix, the group composition continually changes.

As a result, the group never settles down and the composition of groups is more or less random. And randomly composed groups are integrated, rather than segregated. This is exactly what happened in our experiment. Students were unable to identify when no better locations existed, and continued moving in the pursuit of perfect happiness.

Our experiments reveal why we should be cautious when offering policy advice on the basis of theoretical models. The models fail because they assume that we are always perfectly informed about the best available options – and perfectly able to pursue them. In reality, we often face constraints when we gather information and make decisions. This can be the case, not only at mingles, but even for serious decisions with lifetime consequences such as moving house, choosing schools and changing jobs.

Mathematical models are important, but we need to test them empirically before applying them in practice. Segregation is not unavoidable, but there is a need to continue educating people in the benefits of diversity and to continue devising polices and incentives that prevent or ease segregation.

Milena Tsvetkova, Postdoctoral Researcher in Computational Social Science,University of Oxford and David Sumpter, Professor of Applied Mathematics, Uppsala University.

This article was first published on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

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For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.