Birds of a Feather: VT Risk Study Shows We're Influenced by Those Around Us

Jun 30, 2015

The latest trends, whatever they’re surrounding, can be anything from fun and fabulous…to awful and appalling.  And it turns out, there’s a reason behind what’s popular at any given moment -- just think of the phrase, “birds of a feather flock together.” A new study by the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute shows people really care what their peers think and take that information into account when making their own decisions. 

Do birds of a feather really flock together?
Credit Creative Commons

Let’s say you’re eating dinner at a restaurant with a group of friends.  The waiter comes and offers desert. You want to resist but the rest of your friends order ice cream and you find yourself ordering, too.  You’ve just been influenced by the social information you got from your friends.  Researchers with the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute found sometimes we can be swayed into making the same decision as those around us.  

For their study, they took a group of people and had them play a game by themselves.  The participants had to decide between taking a guaranteed payout of say, 5 dollars, or a 50 percent chance of winning 10 dollars on each turn. 

“There’s no right answer but we had people make the decisions alone so we could figure out are they a risk averse or risk seeking person and then put you in a group, so you would watch other people who are riskier than you and then who are safer than you.  And we measured how they influenced both your behavior and your brain responses.” 

Pearl Chiu is a researcher and senior author of the paper.  She says while in an MRI scanner, the participants were able to see the decisions of those around them playing the game in real time.  They found the “ventromedial pre-frontal cortex”-that’s the decision making area of the brain-lit up the more the subjects valued the input they got from their colleagues. 

“And especially exciting, I think was the degree of brain activity predicted the likelihood you would conform with other people.”

Co-author Brooks King-Casas says the more the study participants valued the information they got from their peers, the more they chose the same option.

“What we’re finding is that social information or seeing the choices of other people will nudge people one way or another just a little bit.  It’s not going to make you choose something you otherwise would not have; no drastic differences in what you really prefer but it does nudge you probably about 10 to 15 percent one way or another.”

They also found the degree to how much you’re influenced depends on what your preference is.  So if you don’t like taking chances, you’ll be more influenced by a like-minded person.  But if you’re on the fence about a decision. . .

“Those are the kinds of people who are going to be most influenced by the social signals.  When you are on the decision is that what that social observation gives you is that nudge one way or another.  For those that are right on the fence, it will push you one direction or the other.  So those are the folks for which social influence is the most powerful. “ 

But we don’t always follow the decisions of our friends.  Did your mother ever ask, ‘If your friends jumped off the roof would you do so, too?’

“If you are too extremely, preferring one attitude, like you are super, super risk adverse and the others are choosing risky options like. ‘Oh, yeah, jump off the roof..’ that kind of thing, you will never follow that kind of risky option."

Research associate Dongil Chung says taking risks doesn’t have to be as dangerous as skydiving or hitchhiking across the country by yourself.  It can be a risky endeavor such as starting a business or running for office.  And now that they know people are influenced by what others around them think, they can put it to work.

“So you can encourage adolescents to go out and find adventurous stuffs, like go out for a team and go more variety of stuffs that you won’t ever even think of doing at first.” 

“Or in advertising, if you have people in your advertisement, what kind of people do you want do depict? Probably people that are similar to the people who the product you’re trying to market.  But probably not too different because like Dongil was saying, if they’re too different we likely won’t follow.”

But it’s more than just peer pressure.  The researchers say their study shows why strong social support systems are effective for encouraging healthy choices.  For instance, in determining how an intervention affects addicts. 

“We know that social support is one of the strongest predictors of relapse or not. If you have a good social support system, you’re less likely to relapse but we don’t know what kind of support system  Is two people ideal, is it 10 people, is 20 people too many? How strongly should they be trying to nudge your decisions? We don’t know any of that. “

Not yet, but the researchers hope to be able to test that theory soon.