Two St. Andrews professors conducted research into how our reactions are shaped by those who we perceive to be in our own social group. Their research sheds light on how governments could respond more effectively to the virus by playing into the herd mentality.
It is well-established that humans learn their behaviour from those around them. But in a new study led by two St Andrews professors, it has been revealed that we do not simply mimic anyone. Rather, our behaviour is shaped by the people we view as our fellow group members. The study comes at a very pertinent time. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, it can help us to understand and model how different people react to the virus, and how far they are willing to comply with the rules.
The research, which was carried out in conjunction with UCL and Sussex University, was published in the journal PLOS ONE on 30 October by Dr Fergus Neville and Professor Stephen Reicher, from the School of Management and Psychology respectively. The experiment that led them to their conclusion took place at the Science Museum in London, with over a thousand people volunteering to take part.
Participants were each given a screen on which they saw a dot representing themselves, alongside everyone else’s, before being assigned to either a red or a blue group depending on two simple tests. One test involved participants moving their dot onto their preferred work of art, and the other, a simple personality quiz, made them answer ten basic questions on the so-called Ten Item Personality Measure (TIPI). Once complete, the participants were informed that they were put in their specific group because of identified similarities shared by their fellow group members.
They were then given three tasks to complete. In each task, they could see the movements of what they were told were fellow participants but which were in fact pre-recorded by the experimenters. All involved some kind of choice to be made through moving the dot either in a certain direction or into a specific box or circle. In each case, the red and blue dots clustered together towards different options, with the exception of the “Rather Task” in which the participants were asked to make an individual choice as to whether they would prefer the ‘superpower of flight or invisibility, have love or money, be a dragon or own a pet dragon, and be covered in fur or scales’.
To account for this result, the researchers reasoned that group membership only affects our decision-making when we perceive that the choice is relevant to group identity. Since the question posed for the “Rather Task” emphasised the aspect of individual choice, the participants did not feel the pressure to conform to the rest of the group.
After having plotted the results, the researchers came to the conclusion that mimicry is not a mindless, automatic act, and that how we behave depends heavily on the actions of our fellow “in-group” members.
The study builds on the theory of self-categorisation (SCT), which deals with the different ways in which humans perceive collections of people in terms of groups. This theory has been applied to many different fields, including economics, consumer behaviour and animal research. What sets this study apart from others that deal with self-categorisation is that it offers an insight into the conditions under which it occurs.
The results also go against the concept of “contagion”, the idea that mimicry is driven by proximity to other humans, regardless of whether or not we identify with them. In their discussion of the nature and causes of mimicry, the two professors argue that even small, fleeting actions like yawning and face-touching are prompted by the group instinct.
This is by no means the first time that Stephen Reicher has conducted research into the manifestations of self-categorisation. He recently published an article on crowd violence in which he argues that shared identity causes violent events like riots to reproduce themselves. Back in 2002, he produced a documentary series called The Experiment with fellow psychologist Alex Haslam in which 15 men were put in a make-believe prison and given the choice of being either a prisoner or a guard. The series explores how social identity takes shape, with both the guards and the prisoners internalising their roles and defining themselves in opposition to one another. It also highlights the psychological benefits of self-realisation when the prisoners band together to confront the guards and establish a Commune, helping them to overcome their stresses.
Likewise, Fergus Neville, a professor of Management at the University, has conducted research into how social identities play out within an organisational context. He has looked into how groups breed toxic behaviour in organisations, and equally how they can prove to be advantageous in some cases.
Their findings have important implications for how governments should proceed with their approach to Coronavirus. As Stephen Reicher explained: “The fact that people are more likely to imitate others who they regard as ‘in-group’ is critical for maximising public compliance with safety protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic. If the public see those who are providing them with guidance as ‘we’ instead of ‘they’, adherence to public health measures will be much higher.” In other words, governments the world over would do well to ensure that Coronavirus regulations are disseminated in a way that plays into the herd mentality inherent in humans.
Many research projects come to important conclusions without having any material influence. This one, however, has the potential to drive tangible change in the way that the UK and Scottish Governments deal with the pandemic. Professor Reicher not only writes regular articles for the Guardian, but he also advises both the Scottish and UK governments on COVID-19, meaning that he has considerable influence over government policy. This new study could well pave the way for a more careful and considered approach to the virus.
Among Reicher’s criticisms of the British Government’s response to the virus is the accusation that Westminster has created a damaging “culture of blame”, arguing that the consistent U-turns in government policy – such as their sudden switch from encouraging people to eat out to forbidding it – is causing more unnecessary deaths. In presenting his case, he draws on SCT, stating that “When you have some extreme event and people all have the same experience and the same fears and threats, that helps create a shared identity. People are then prepared to make sacrifices for the community.” On the other hand, he argues, “the whole culture of blame…sets us against each other.” It is vital in times like these that we all work as one to overcome the challenges we face.
Aside from politics, the study also helps to explain why in emergency evacuations people react in varied ways. According to the contagion theory, people should act in a more or less identical manner in pressing situations, based on the assumption that humans mimic indiscriminately all those around them. But studies have shown this not to be the case, with different people taking different courses of actions in cases of emergency. The findings of Reicher and Neville go some way in providing a reason for this variability: people do not automatically follow everyone else, but only those who they deem to be in the same social category as them.
This project is a shining example of the importance of the research being undertaken at the University of St Andrews. As an undergraduate, buried in a pile of library books and coursework, it is easy to forget about the sheer wealth of research going on behind the scenes. It is exciting to consider that the work of two professors at this very university could change the way that Britain deals with the ongoing pandemic, hopefully for the better.