When do institutions suddenly collapse? Zones of knowledge and the likelihood of political cascades

Ian S. Lustick, Dan Miodownik*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


In this paper institutions are treated as stabilized sets of expectations, an approach that encourages investigation of how cultural formations, political regimes, global financial arrangements, and other institutions can be both reliable and yet also subject to sudden and sometimes catastrophic transformations. We examine conditions that make political cascades, or tipping, more or less likely. We report findings from computer-assisted agent-based modelling experiments designed to test Timur Kuran’s preference falsification model for explaining the possibility, but rare occurrence of, revolutionary political cascades. Since it run on a computer, our operationalized model of Kuran’s theory is a necessarily precise and elaborated refinement of the incompletely specified version presented by Kuran. Our purpose is to go beyond his explanation for why political cascades can occur, albeit rarely, to explore the conditions that make them more or less likely. Our specific focus is on the impact of the amount of knowledge about the state of the entire system possessed by citizens with stronger or weaker inclinations to publicly express their anti-regime sentiments. The “zone of knowledge” of individuals is an unexamined variable whose importance is unrecognized but implied by Kuran’s analysis. We find that with some reasonable but crucial refinements Kuran’s preference falsification theory works to explain the pattern observed in the political world of rare but sweeping cascades of; that the amount of knowledge individuals have about the behavior of the population is crucial to shaping the probability of a cascade; and that variation in the myopia of “early followers” is considerably more important for determining the likelihood and comprehensiveness of sudden political transformations than the influence of first movers or the contribution of other plausible factors.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)413-437
Number of pages25
JournalQuality and Quantity
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Apr 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, Springer Nature B.V.


  • Agent based modelling
  • Anti-regime mobilization
  • Neighborhoods
  • Political cascades
  • Political institutions
  • Timur Kuran
  • Tipping


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