I don’t feel like sitting down and writing today. It’s my dog’s fault as I glance at her sprawling, snoring form on the couch. Instead, I think I will share an article (yawn) I read in Cosmos Magazine. In last month’s issue, we wrote about the fact that most employees are not engaged in their work. Perhaps, the following is a reason why.
In research published in PLOS Computational Biology, a duo from the Brain and Spine Institute in Paris, France, found that people learn about these three traits from those around them, unconsciously adjusting their attitudes to imitate those of others.
Using mathematical modeling, Marie Devaine and Jean Dauizeau analyzed the responses of 56 participants to a series of decisions they made both before and after seeing the responses of others. Participants were led to believe that the decisions made by the “others” were real when in fact, they had been carefully crafted by the researchers.
The scientists operated under the premise that individuals change their beliefs after observing those of others. The evolutionary benefit of this imitative behavior is that it facilitates fast learning; copying others means you don’t have to waste time discovering something already known.
The traits of prudence, impatience, and laziness are key in determining goal-directed behavior. Prudence reflects high-risk evaluation, impatience is associated with delay, and lazy people find that rewards aren’t worth the effort.This led the researchers to ask: do we gather information on these traits from the responses of others? And do our attitudes impact how we learn about the attitudes of others?
To find out, they first needed to create a mathematical model of the problem to test against their subjects. The model predicted that two phenomena arise when people learn about what other people think.
First, a person will overestimate the amount to which their beliefs resemble those of others – a condition is known as “false consensus” bias. Second, an individual will change their attitudes to match those of others – something called “social influence” bias.
Commenting on the significance of the duo’s approach, cognitive psychologist Jeroen van Boxtel from Monash University in Australia notes that “the model complexity is in the fact that the model, and humans, need to learn hidden – covert – attitudes, and observable – overt – behavior, which is a multi-step process”.
But did the model hold true when compared to the responses of real-life subjects? In short, yes.
The researchers found that people become significantly more impatient, lazy or prudent after observing the behavior of somebody more susceptible to these traits. Additionally, the mathematical structure was confirmed when they found that subjects guess the attitudes of others to be similar to their own.
They also found that people change their positions to align with the attitudes of the others once they discover what they are. Van Boxtel indicates that the significance of the research lies in its ability to predict the behavior of humans from a model. “It’s relatively easy to come up with a model that explains past experimental data. However, the importance of a model is that they can make new predictions,” he says.
When you find yourself yawning, first look around at your office mate….or your dog.