The ecological roots of human susceptibility to social influence

Source: RoyalSociety Open Science

The ecological roots of human susceptibility to social influence: a pre-registered study investigating the impact of early-life adversity
Pierre O. Jacquet , Lou Safra , Valentin Wyart , Nicolas Baumard  and Coralie Chevallier
Published:09 January 2019

There is considerable variability in the degree to which individuals rely on their peers to make decisions. Although theoretical models predict that environmental risks shift the cost–benefit trade-off associated with social information use, this idea has received little empirical support. Here we aim to test the effect of childhood environmental adversity on humans' susceptibility to follow others’ opinion in the context of a standard face evaluation task. Results collected in a pilot study involving 121 adult participants tested online showed that susceptibility to social influence and childhood environmental adversity are positively associated. Computational analyses further confirmed that this effect is not explained by the fact that participants exposed to early adversity produce noisier decisions overall but that they are indeed more likely to follow the group's opinion. To test the robustness of these findings, a pre-registered direct replication using an optimal sample size was run. The results obtained from 262 participants in the pre-registered study did not reveal a significant association between childhood adversity and task performance but the meta-analysis ran on both the pilot and the pre-registered study replicated the initial finding. This work provides experimental evidence for an association between individuals' past ecology and their susceptibility to social influence.

1. Background

Modern western societies take for granted that intellectual autonomy, creativity and originality are universally valued. ‘Free-thinkers’, ‘rebels’ or ‘subversive attitudes' are indeed positively valued and parents even encourage their children to have their own opinion and to ‘be leaders rather than followers’. But such independence is in fact not highly regarded in every society and at every time in history [1]. Pre-industrial Europe, for instance, emphasized the importance of conformity and traditionalism, individuals took pride in following the ‘ancients’, and parents taught their children to be obedient, to revere their elders and to abide by the majority [2–4]. Within societies, individuals also vary in the degree to which they rely on others' views to make decisions and form opinions [5–8]. Why is that the case? Why are some environments seemingly more conducive to individual exploration while other environments promote more social forms of information acquisition?