A natural desire to be part of the ‘in crowd’ could damage our ability to make the right decisions, a new study suggests.
Researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK have shown that individuals evolved to be overly influenced by their neighbors, rather than rely on their own instinct. As a result, groups have become less responsive to changes in their natural environment.
“Social influence is a powerful force in nature and society,” says lead author Dr. Colin Torney, from the University of Exeter’s Mathematics department.
Dr. Torney explains that copying what other individuals do can be useful in many situations. For instance, buying popular products generally leads to more reliable purchases; for animals, following the herd can help them figure out which way to move or whether a situation is dangerous.
“However,” he says, “the challenge is in evaluating personal beliefs when they contradict what others are doing.”
For the study, the team used mathematical models to look at how the use of social information has evolved within animal groups.
Dr. Torney summarizes the team’s findings below:
“We showed that evolution will lead individuals to over use social information, and copy others too much than they should. The result is that groups evolve to be unresponsive to changes in their environment and spend too much time copying one another, and not making their own decisions. “
The researchers suggest this ‘herd-mentality’ is due to a “classic evolutionary conflict between individual and collective interest.”
Indeed, past studies on collective decision-making have found that even in large crowds of 200 or more individuals, just 5 percent of the group is enough to influence which direction the entire crowd travels.
“Our results suggest we shouldn’t expect social groups in nature to respond effectively to changing environments,” says Dr. Torney. “Individuals that spend too much time copying their neighbors is likely to be the norm.”
The new study, “Social information use and the evolution of unresponsiveness in collective systems,” is published in the journal Interface.