Random Deviations Improve Micro–Macro Predictions: An Empirical Test

Michael Mäs, Dirk Helbing

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
17 Downloads (Pure)


Many sociological theories make critically different macropredictions when their microassumptions are implemented stochastically rather than deterministically. Deviations from individuals’ behavioral patterns described by microtheories can spark cascades that change macrooutcomes, even when deviations are rare and random. With two experiments, we empirically tested whether macrophenomena can be critically shaped by random deviations. Ninety-six percent of participants’ decisions were in line with a deterministic theory of bounded rationality. Despite this impressive microlevel accuracy, the deterministic model failed to predict the observed macrooutcomes. However, a stochastic version of the same microtheory largely improved macropredictions. The stochastic model also correctly predicted the conditions under which deviations mattered. Results also supported the hypothesis that nonrandom deviations can result in fundamentally different macrooutcomes than random deviations. In conclusion, we echo the warning that deterministic microtheories can be misleading. Our findings show that taking into account deviations in sociological theories can improve explanations and predictions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)387-417
Number of pages31
JournalSociological Methods and Research
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • coordination game
  • evolutionary game
  • experiment
  • formal modeling
  • micro–macro problem
  • network
  • noise
  • randomness
  • theory

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