Tag Archives: ABM

A bad assumption: a simpler model is more general

By Bruce Edmonds

If one adds in some extra detail to a general model it can become more specific — that is it then only applies to those cases where that particular detail held. However the reverse is not true: simplifying a model will not make it more general – it is just you can imagine it would be more general.

To see why this is, consider an accurate linear equation, then eliminate the variable leaving just a constant. The equation is now simpler, but now will only be true at only one point (and only be approximately right in a small region around that point) – it is much less general than the original, because it is true for far fewer cases.

This is not very surprising – a claim that a model has general validity is a very strong claim – it is unlikely to be achieved by arm-chair reflection or by merely leaving out most of the observed processes.

Only under some special conditions does simplification result in greater generality:

  • When what is simplified away is essentially irrelevant to the outcomes of interest (e.g. when there is some averaging process over a lot of random deviations)
  • When what is simplified away happens to be constant for all the situations considered (e.g. gravity is always 9.8m/s^2 downwards)
  • When you loosen your criteria for being approximately right hugely as you simplify (e.g. mover from a requirement that results match some concrete data to using the model as a vague analogy for what is happening)

In other cases, where you compare like with like (i.e. you don’t move the goalposts such as in (3) above) then it only works if you happen to know what can be safely simplified away.

Why people think that simplification might lead to generality is somewhat of a mystery. Maybe they assume that the universe has to obey ultimately laws so that simplification is the right direction (but of course, even if this were true, we would not know which way to safely simplify). Maybe they are really thinking about the other direction, slowly becoming more accurate by making the model mirror the target more. Maybe this is just a justification for laziness, an excuse for avoiding messy complicated models. Maybe they just associate simple models with physics. Maybe they just hope their simple model is more general.


Aodha, L. and Edmonds, B. (2017) Some pitfalls to beware when applying models to issues of policy relevance. In Edmonds, B. & Meyer, R. (eds.) Simulating Social Complexity – a handbook, 2nd edition. Springer, 801-822.

Edmonds, B. (2007) Simplicity is Not Truth-Indicative. In Gershenson, C.et al. (2007) Philosophy and Complexity. World Scientific, 65-80.

Edmonds, B. (2017) Different Modelling Purposes. In Edmonds, B. & Meyer, R. (eds.) Simulating Social Complexity – a handbook, 2nd edition. Springer, 39-58.

Edmonds, B. and Moss, S. (2005) From KISS to KIDS – an ‘anti-simplistic’ modelling approach. In P. Davidsson et al. (Eds.): Multi Agent Based Simulation 2004. Springer, Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence, 3415:130–144.

Edmonds, B. (2018) A bad assumption: a simpler model is more general. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 28th August 2018. https://rofasss.org/2018/08/28/be-2/


Query: What is the earliest example of a social science simulation (that is nonetheless arguably an ABM) and shows real and simulated data in the same figure or table?

By Edmund Chattoe-Brown

On one level this is a straightforward request. The earliest convincing example I have found is Hägerstrand (1965, p. 381) an article that seems to be undeservedly neglected because it is also the earliest example of a simulation I have been able to identify that demonstrates independent calibration and validation (Gilbert and Troitzsch 2005, p. 17).1

However, my attempts to find the earliest examples are motivated two more substantive issues (which may help to focus the search for earlier candidates). Firstly, what is the value of a canon (and giving due intellectual credit) for the success of ABM? The Schelling model is widely known and taught but it is not calibrated and validated. If a calibrated and validated model already existed in 1965, should it not be more widely cited? If we mostly cite a non-empirical model, might we give the impression that this is all that ABM can do? Also, failing to cite an article means that it cannot form the basis for debate. Is the Hägerstrand model in some sense “better” or “more important” than the Schelling model? This is a discussion we cannot have without awareness of the Hägerstrand model in the first place.

The second (and related) point regards the progress made by ABM and how those outside the community might judge it. Looking at ABM research now, the great majority of models appear to be non-empirical (Angus and Hassani-Mahmooei 2015, Table 5 in section 4.5). Without citations of articles like Hägerstrand (and even Clarkson and Meltzer), the non-expert reader of ABM might be led to conclude that it is too early (or too difficult) to produce such calibrated and validated models. But if this was done 50 years ago, and is not being much publicised, might we be using up our credibility as a “new” field still finding its feet?) If there are reasons for not doing, or not wanting to do, what Hägerstrand managed, let us be obliged to be clear what they are and not simply hide behind widespread neglect of such examples2.)


  1. I have excluded an even earlier example of considerable interest (Clarkson and Meltzer 1960 which also includes an attempt at calibration and validation but has never been cited in JASSS) for two reasons. Firstly, it deals with the modelling of a single agent and therefore involves no interaction. Secondly, it appears that the validation may effectively be using the “same” data as the calibration in that protocols elicited from an investment officer regarding portfolio selection are then tested against choices made by that same investment officer.
  2. And, of course, this is a vicious circle because in our increasingly pressurised academic world, people only tend to read and cite what is already cited.


Angus, Simon D. and Hassani-Mahmooei, Behrooz (2015) ‘“Anarchy” Reigns: A Quantitative Analysis of Agent-Based Modelling Publication Practices in JASSS, 2001-2012’, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 18(4), October, article 16, .

Clarkson, Geoffrey P. and Meltzer, Allan H. (1960) ‘Portfolio Selection: A Heuristic Approach, The Journal of Finance, 15(4), December, pp. 465-480.

Gilbert, Nigel and Troitzsch, Klaus G. (2005) Simulation for the Social Scientist, 2nd edition (Buckingham: Open University Press).

Hägerstrand, Torsten (1965) ‘A Monte Carlo Approach to Diffusion’, Archives Européennes de Sociologie, 6(1), May, Special Issue on Simulation in Sociology, pp. 43-67.

Chattoe-Brown, E. (2018) What is the earliest example of a social science simulation (that is nonetheless arguably an ABM) and shows real and simulated data in the same figure or table? Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 11th June 2018. https://rofasss.org/2018/06/11/ecb/