Copy Cats

Think for yourself? No you don’t – you just copy other people.

Researchers from the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Paris have confirmed that people unconsciously imitate their friends and associate’s careful or impatient or lazy behaviour. This makes sense – we are humans and our evolution is governed by our DNA – the purpose of which is to replicate and copy. We spend our formative years copying the behaviour of our parents, our siblings, and our friends. We learn by imitating and copying other’s technical and social skills. Now it seems that this need to copy carries on throughout our adult lives.

It has always been thought that personality is firmly established by our late-teens, but it now seems that personality may not be set in stone and is not as ingrained as was originally thought – our attitudes and thus our behaviour, can still be influenced by others.

The researchers conducted experiments designed to study the behaviour of 56 volunteers. Each volunteer was asked to look at the decisions of fictitious participants whose attitudes were controlled by the researchers, following which they were asked to make a series of decisions involving risk, delay and effort.

Tasks involving risk were set to study prudence – participants were asked to choose between winning 90% of a small lottery prize, or a lesser chance to win a higher prize.

Tasks involving effort were set to study laziness – participants had to grip a device at between 10% and 90% of their ability for either a low or high reward.

Tasks involving delay were set to study impatience – participants had to choose between a small pay out offered in three days and a higher pay out up to a year later.

The participants carried out each task several times. During the process they were told how a previous participant had performed, and their own responses were assessed.

The results showed that participants had a ‘false-consensus bias’ – believing that the attitudes of others resembled their own. They also followed a ‘social influence bias’ – their attitude becoming more similar to those of people around them. This is pure non-verbal suggestion.

The researchers believe that the social influence bias is partially determined by the false-consensus bias. Participants who weakly believed that the attitudes of others resembled their own, were more likely to imitate the actions of those around them. Those who strongly believed that the attitudes of others resembled their own, were less likely to imitate others.

These biases, and the interaction between them, are indicative of a unique evolutionary mechanism that is ideally suited to learning both about, and from, others’ attitudes. This clashes with previous findings, which suggest that people modify their attitudes to conform with society.

There are all sorts of human behaviours that are contagious. People are predisposed to herd mentality – you can observe it in almost any social gathering – football matches, parties, at concerts, even in the schoolyard.

We adapt to and learn from the behaviour of those around us. If we mix with lazy people, we will make less effort ourselves – if we mix with people who have plenty of get up and go, we will ourselves become more enthusiastic and ambitious. The same is true of impatience and prudence. It happens from a very early age and now we know it continues throughout our lives.

More important, we can observe how people’s attitudes can drift imperceptibly but inexorably toward that of others. Only 19% of those who changed their attitude were aware they had done so.

The research is published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.

 

Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.