Just Being Social

Sheep are often used as examples of creatures following social information clues without question. Of course, most group-living species benefit from the rapid spread of such information, indeed their survival may depend on it. Social information is the big reason for group-living in most cases. We humans have become much more sophisticated than sheep. We don’t baa at each other, most of the time anyway. These days we Tweet, and re-Tweet, making the spread infectious, and the use of #-tags takes the whole thing viral in no time.

In between Tweets, we put our smartphones to our ears in a vain attempt to warm up our brains with the microwave emissions, and then we revert to the old stand by – do what our neighbors are doing – the safe option. Or is it?

Faria, Krause and Krause have been watching pedestrians cross the road. Why? Probably for the same reason as the chicken. Their paper: “Collective Behavior in Road Crossing Pedestrians: The Role of Social Information” (1) makes interesting reading.

They note that if one person goes, the people next to them can’t hold out and go too. Manifest destiny I guess. We are about twice as likely to go across the big divide as to stay on the safe edge of excitement. In line with their testosterone levels, males are more likely to go for it than females.

There are some people who start, but their courage fails and they return to the safety of the curb. Interestingly, these adventurers tended to be members of a group. They clearly had too much discussion going on, and had to comer back for a board meeting.

There were two important conclusions drawn from this study:
  1. That social information induced some people to make the wrong decision in their timing to make the crossing adventure.
  2. That the small benefit in waiting time was gained at the cost of a higher risk of injury, thus the making the social information of dubious value.

  1. Behavioral Ecology (2010) 21(6): 1236-1242 first published online September 9, 2010doi:10.1093/beheco/arq141

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