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The power of social influence

Study says ‘herd mentality’ can damage one’s ability to make the right decision

People queuing at a restaurant in Amsterdam. Photo: Lee Snider/shutterstock.com

People queuing at a restaurant in Amsterdam. Photo: Lee Snider/shutterstock.com

A natural desire to be part of the ‘popular crowd’ could damage people’s ability to make the right decisions, scientists say.

Research suggests that individuals have evolved to be overly influenced by their neighbours rather than relying on their own instincts.

This results in groups having a ‘herd mentality’ and being less responsive to changes in their natural environment.

The study, which was led by the University of Exeter and included academics from across the world, is published in the Royal Society journal Interface.

Colin Torney, of the University of Exeter’s mathematics department, said the ‘herd mentality’ led to people copying each other rather than making their own choices.

“Social influence is a powerful force in nature and society,” Torney said.

“Copying what other individ-uals do can be useful in many situations, such as what kind of phone to buy, or for animals, which way to move or whether a situation is dangerous.

“However, the challenge is in evaluating personal beliefs when they contradict what others are doing. We showed that evolution will lead individuals to overuse social information, and copy others too much than they should.

Individuals have evolved to be overly influenced by their neighbours rather than relying on their own instincts

“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 study also involved the Sorbonne University and the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation, both in France.

Researchers used mathematical models to examine how the use of social information has evolved within animal groups.

Through a simple model of decision-making in a dynamic environment, the team was able to show the individuals overly rely on social information and evolve to be too readily influenced by their neighbours.

The researchers suggest this is due to a “classic evolutionary conflict between individual and collective interest”.

Torney added: “Our results suggest we shouldn’t expect social groups in nature to respond effectively to changing environments.

“Individuals that spend too much time copying their neighbours is likely to be the norm.”

‘Social information use and the evolution of unresponsiveness in collective systems’ is published in the journal Interface.

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