We Just Can't Help It!

Not only are we creatures of habit but we have a tendency to fit in by doing the same things as our neighbors or the people we are reacting with. The old saying that “imitation is the highest form of flattery” doesn’t cut it, though. Often the imitation is unconscious or automatic. Quite unconsciously we find that we all are doing the same thing. Yawning is a good example of this automatic imitation and is often given as an example of empathy (1) when the feedback mechanism is strong and the yawnee increases the yawning of the original yawner.

What happens to the automatic mimicry when there is skin in the game? Do we then get strategic about things and turn off the switch or are we just victims of our nature? Cook et al have a paper in Proc. Roy. Soc. indicating the latter.

The study used the ultimate decision making game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” that we learnt in school and is played with the hands by we lesser mortals, but with much more sophisticated tools by the rich and powerful of the world. Groups of students were paid $8 to play the game and the skin was put in by paying a $4 bonus to the winner of each multiple game round with an additional $4 bonus for the largest number of correct choices. The latter was essential to eliminate any desire for draws. Some rounds were played with both players blindfolded and some with only one player blindfolded.

When both players were blindfolded the results were nicely described by the stats for random chance. But the exciting result is that when one player was blindfolded, their opponent lost slightly more often. To be more explicit, draws also occurred more frequently with the blindfolded–sighted combination. So, on balance, being blindfolded meant more $$$ in this experiment.

The explanation lies in automatic mimicry – we are victims of our nature, or our mirror neuron system. Mirror neurons were identified in macaques in the ‘90s.  They pick up the start of a motion in a fraction of a second. The hungry student competitors were filmed and their reaction times plotted. All the sighted ones showed at tail toward long reaction times. Which means that on those slow reacting occasions, their mirror neurons would start the action cascade to produce a draw and leave them out of the running for the bonus.

I am left pondering does this result mean that, on balance in a competitive world, it is better to act first so that you opponent will only try and match you, giving you more opportunities to win or should we try for empathic feedback and cooperate?

  1. http://james-goodwin.blogspot.com/2011/05/tiring-day.html
  2. http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2011/07/12/rspb.2011.1024.full

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