Human behavior is 93 per­cent pre­dictable, a group of leading North­eastern Uni­ver­sity net­work sci­en­tists recently found. Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics Albert-​​László Barabási and his team studied the mobility pat­terns of anony­mous cell-​​phone users and con­cluded that, despite the common per­cep­tion that our actions are random and unpre­dictable, human mobility fol­lows sur­pris­ingly reg­ular pat­terns. The team’s research is pub­lished in the cur­rent issue of Sci­ence magazine.

Spon­ta­neous indi­vid­uals are largely absent from the pop­u­la­tion. Despite the sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences in travel pat­terns, we found that most people are equally pre­dictable,” said Barabási, who is also director of Northeastern’s world-​​leading Center for Com­plex Net­work Research. “The pre­dictability rep­re­sents the prob­a­bility we can foresee an individual’s future where­abouts in the next hour based on his or her pre­vious trajectory.”

Barabási and his team also dis­cov­ered that regard­less of the dif­ferent dis­tances people travel, the 93 per­cent pre­dictability remains true both for those who travel far dis­tances on a reg­ular basis and for those who typ­i­cally stay close to home.

We tend to assume that it’s much easier to pre­dict the move­ment of those who travel very little over those who reg­u­larly cover thou­sands of miles,” said Chaoming Song, PhD of the Center for Com­plex Net­work Research and lead author of the paper “Yet, we have found that despite our het­ero­geneity, we are all almost equally predictable.”

The researchers were also sur­prised to find that the reg­u­larity and pre­dictability of indi­vidual move­ment did not differ sig­nif­i­cantly across demo­graphic cat­e­gories, including age, gender, lan­guage groups, pop­u­la­tion den­sity, and urban versus rural locations.

In ear­lier research on human mobility pat­terns, pub­lished in a 2008 issue of Nature mag­a­zine, Barabási and his team studied the real-​​time tra­jec­tory of 100,000 anony­mous cell-​​phone users (ran­domly selected from more than 6 mil­lion users) and found that, despite the diver­sity of their travel his­tory, humans follow simple repro­ducible patterns.

While most indi­vid­uals travel only short dis­tances and a few reg­u­larly move over hun­dreds of miles, they all follow a simple pat­tern regard­less of time and dis­tance, and they have a strong ten­dency to return to loca­tions they vis­ited before,” explained Barabási.

In this cur­rent project, the net­work sci­en­tists studied three months of anony­mous cell-​​phone data cap­turing the mobility pat­terns of 50,000 users chosen ran­domly from a pool of 10 million.

We now know that when it comes to processes driven by human mobility—such as epi­demic mod­eling, urban plan­ning, and traffic engineering—it is sci­en­tif­i­cally pos­sible to pre­dict people’s move­ment and pos­i­tively impact how soci­eties address public health and urban devel­op­ment,” added Song.

Addi­tional coau­thors on the paper, titled “Limits of Pre­dictability in Human Mobility,” are Zehui Qu and Nicholas Blumm, both doc­toral can­di­dates in the Center for Com­plex Net­work Research.