Study finds people flock, or behave similarly to others, despite reasoning abilities

September 19, 2018 by Karen Nikos-Rose, UC Davis
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Crowd panics, market bubbles, and other unpredictable collective behaviors would not happen if people were smart about these things and just thought through their behavior before they acted. Right? That's the perspective in economics, and even psychology and sociology.

But a UC Davis researcher looked at how people behave in simple games and found that people are usually driven to "flock," or behave similarly to others in a given situation. Seth Frey, an assistant professor of communication at UC Davis, said this happens "even when people use the fancy reasoning processes that are supposed to make humans so special."

Frey is lead author of an article, "Cognitive mechanisms for human flocking dynamics." The paper appeared in the Journal of Computational Social Science this month.

"The basic idea is that we have this preconception about fads and panics and flocks and herds, that they are driven by our basest animal spirits, and that adding thoughtfulness or education or intelligence would make those things go away," Frey said.

"This paper shows that people who are being thoughtful (specifically people who are doing dizzying 'what you think I think you think I think' reasoning) still get caught up in little flocks, in a way that the they end up playing is driven less by what seems rational and more by what they think the others think they're going to do."

Each game used in the study is based on a very different way of thinking and should have evoked different varieties of reasoning by players, Frey said. But they did not. The same sophisticated flocking behavior bore out in all three games.

Flocking can be good or bad

Researchers looked at the behavior of hundreds of players, who came from student and online pools, repeated for many rounds of the games over time. They analyzed behavior over high and low payoffs, over multiple populations and with very experienced players, with the well-known "Beauty Contest" game and two they devised for the research, "Mod Game" and "Runway Game," Frey said.

Rules and methods of winning each game varied.

In Beauty Contest, players receive a reward for guessing the number 0-100 whose number is closest to two-thirds the value of the average of all numbers submitted by all players. In the Mod Game, players choose an integer between 1 and 24. Players earn points by choosing a number precisely one above another's number, except that 1 beats 24, such as in Paper-Rock-Scissors, in that every number can get beaten by another. And in the Runway Game, players practice the same one-upmanship of the Mod Game, but they can choose literally any number, -1, a million, pi, anything. These subtle differences lead to big differences in theory, but they don't seem to matter to players, who get caught up in their group mates' flocking no matter what.

Frey explained that flocking, in life, can be good or bad. It can be good for schools of fish, flocking birds, or team cyclists in a race—where in each case group members gain a greater ability to obtain food, be safe or to win. But flocking can be undesirable in a stock market fall or a riot, for instance, where safety, survival or "winning" can be jeopardized.

"...These games show that sophisticated human reasoning processes may be just as likely to drive the complex, often pathological, social dynamics that we usually attribute to reactive, emotional, nondeliberative reasoning," the researchers conclude.

"In other words, human intelligence may as likely increase as decrease the complexity and unpredictability of social and economic outcomes."

Explore further: Success is not just how you play your cards, but how you play your opponents

More information: Seth Frey et al. Cognitive mechanisms for human flocking dynamics, Journal of Computational Social Science (2018). DOI: 10.1007/s42001-018-0017-x

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7 comments

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TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Sep 19, 2018
CALL it WHAT it IS.

Tribalism.

Own up and accept all the consequences, the RAMIFICATIONS.

"There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection" (Darwin, 1871, i, p. 166).

Sacrifice reason, logic, restraint, self respect. Victory for the tribe at any cost.
Pooua
not rated yet Sep 19, 2018
I've made a conscious effort ever since I was a young boy to act contrary to human flocking instinct. People think I'm weird. I'm annoyed that people do things like shadow my car as I'm driving on a highway (which wouldn't be so bad if they didn't block me from changing lanes). I've noticed that a random car is more likely to turn down a street if someone else turns down the street ahead of them. People do lots of things just because everyone else is doing it, and then they think that anyone who isn't doing the same thing is weird.
rrwillsj
not rated yet Sep 20, 2018
It's a lot more primitive and instinctive than tribalism. It is the detrius from tens of millions of years of survival instincts bred into our lineage since our ancestral rodents dodging getting stepped on by dinosaurs.

Our destruction of the Earth's Biosphere we rely on for our survival. Is evidence that big brain/fire-tool using evolution is a deadend.
Gigel
not rated yet Sep 20, 2018
I wonder what role this may have in the rise and fall of civilizations...
Thorium Boy
not rated yet Sep 21, 2018
This isn't revelatory. People have been called sheep for hundreds of years.
rrwillsj
not rated yet Sep 21, 2018
TB, it's mighty clever of you nuke pukes to create radioactive sheep's wool. For glow-in-the-dark clothing!
Auntiegrav
not rated yet Sep 24, 2018
"People do stuff. They have reasons for doing stuff: in that order." - John Malakar?
So what is to be done about it?
Owning up to it is a start, so that we can modify our social systems to accommodate the need to break out of flocking behaviors.
It would help if we made it illegal to lie to children, so they can grow and adjust to reality rather than flocking fantasies.
For now, we have systems that do exactly the opposite: marketers use our behaviors to increase our mindlessness and fears of personal solitude. Coercion to fanatical herd behaviors is rampant and effective at separating billions of dollars from sports 'fanatics' every year: to the point that many don't even care about the team they are following. They just compete for being the biggest spectacle in the flock.

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