Copy others to dare – News Psychology and psychiatry

The best things in life are unlikely to happen. In many situations, taking at least moderate risks yields higher expected rewards. Yet many people find it difficult to take such risks: they are too cautious and give up on high gains. “However, we are not alone in this struggle, but we can observe and learn from others,” says Wataru Toyokawa. “So we wanted to know if social learning could also save us from risk aversion. The answer is yes, as authors from the Cluster of Excellence Center for the Advanced Study of Collective Behavior showed in a study just published in the journal eLife.

Collective rescue occurs even within a biased collective

It is a long-established finding that collectives reach better decisions by aggregating information or judgments, the so-called wisdom of crowds. Individual mistakes cancel each other out, so collectives do the right thing even if many individuals are wrong. However, the wisdom of crowds does not work directly here, because the crowd is not wise; on the contrary, the collective is biased towards excessive risk aversion. “I wondered how social learning could still be beneficial in such a situation,” says Toyokawa. “Simply copying the majority would not help us at all, it would even lead to more extreme risk aversion. So if social learning helps at all, it must be through a different mechanism. »

To uncover these mechanisms, Toyokawa developed a dynamic mathematical model, which predicts that social learning can indeed promote favorable risk-taking. He then reviewed his model’s predictions in large-scale online experiments with human subjects. Each participant played a browser game where they could choose between a variety of options – which could turn out to be good or bad, and with different probabilities. Toyokawa observed, “When subjects played individually without any information from other participants, they mostly preferred safe options with lower rewards. However, when social learning was possible, i.e. when participants could see what others were choosing – but did not know how difficult others’ choices were – it became increasingly likely that they choose riskier options with higher expected rewards. In other words, social learners made riskier choices that were more rewarding in the long run.

Sometimes copying others increases exploration and perseverance

“By observing the choices of others, we could make smarter decisions, even though each individual’s own decisions might be unduly risk-averse,” Toyokawa sums up. “Hereby, we have identified a key mechanism underlying this counterintuitive result: risk aversion was attenuated not because the majority chose the risky option, nor because individuals were not simply attracted by the majority. On the contrary, the choices of the participants became more risky even if the majority chose the safest alternative at the start, by finding a fine balance between what they experienced themselves and what they observed from others. . »

Wolfgang Gaissmaier points out that this is a striking demonstration of the power of social learning: “Under social influence, individuals became more exploratory and more persistent in trying the risky and more profitable option, even if this option could sometimes disappoint them in the short term. . And once individual risk aversion was reduced, this process continued, as there were more and more risk takers to copy. »

“The finding that adverse risk aversion is attenuated under social influence will help us better understand the evolution of learning under social interaction,” concludes Wataru Toyokawa. “The study suggests that social learning is advantageous across broader environmental conditions than previously assumed. »

The study was funded by the Cluster of Excellence Center for the Advanced Study of Collective Behavior

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Materials provided by University of Konstanz. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Copy others to dare – News Psychology and psychiatry

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