Contagious Characteristics: Can you ‘catch’ prudence, impatience and laziness?

Contagious Characteristics: Can you ‘catch’ prudence, impatience and laziness?

“Prudence,” “impatience” or “laziness” are typically thought of as entrenched personality traits. You might assume that we are born with built-in tendencies toward or away from taking risks, accepting delays and making an effort. However, new research suggests instead that we tend to unconsciously imitate others’ prudent, impatient or lazy attitudes.

Jean Daunizeau and Marie Devaine used artificial intelligence algorithms to act as virtual study participants that made decisions involving risks, delays or efforts. They then assessed the impact of observing these virtual decisions on decision-making in 56 real study participants.

They found that the real participants exhibited a “social influence” bias; that is, their attitudes tended to become more like those of people – even virtual people – around them. Participants seemed to be mostly unaware that this attitude alignment was occurring. They also demonstrated a “false-consensus” bias, believing that the attitudes of others resembled their own despite a lack of evidence that this was the case.

Mathematical simulations suggest that these biases may arise from an adaptive mechanism that enables us to learn from the attitudes of others, as discerned from their decision-making behavior. However, such herd-like behavior may not always benefit us in the real world, if it means that we pick up the bad habits of others.

Further research could assess attitude alignment in decision-making in the real world, as well as in people with neuropsychiatric conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. However, this initial research may suggest that our attitudes toward effort, delay or risk tend to drift toward those of others. So maybe, if you want to get something done … go sit near a busy person?

Research Article: Devaine M, Daunizeau J (2017) Learning about and from others’ prudence, impatience or laziness: The computational bases of attitude alignment. PLoS Comput Biol 13(3): e1005422. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005422

Image Credit: Kevin Dooley, Flickr


Beth works at PLOS as Journal Media Manager. She read Natural Sciences, specializing in Pathology, at the University of Cambridge before joining PLOS in 2013. She feels fortunate to be able to read and write about the exciting new research published by PLOS.


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