People really do act like part of the herd, even if that herd is made up of secret robots: In a new study on unconscious influences, researchers found that people imitate the impatient, lazy, or prudent attitudes of others when making decisions — but they also have no idea that it’s happening. To most people, the scientists report, feeling that way was just the obvious choice.

In a paper released Thursday in PLOS Computational Biology, a team of French researchers explains how they combined mathematical modeling and cognitive psychology to study whether outside attitudes really did influence people’s decisions. In the study, they asked 56 participants to make a series of fake financial decisions that involved making choices about risks and rewards. Before some of the decisions, however, the subjects saw what choices “artificial agents” made on the same problems, and afterward they recorded the attitude in which they would approach the task. (The artificial choices were made by an A.I. algorithm, but the study subjects thought they had been made by a human.)

After analyzing the results, the researchers found a direct relationship between the attitudes and decisions of the human subjects and those of the artificial agents. This revealed to the researchers that the people were subject to a “false-consensus bias” — the idea that people can “believe without evidence that the attitudes of others resemble their own,” as the researchers put it. If the artificial agent was prudent and didn’t risk much in their financial bet, so would the humans. If they were patient when making the choice, the humans were as well. Meanwhile, the participants were unaware their decisions were biased.

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The brain unconsciously looks to others to make a decision.
The brain unconsciously looks to others to make a decision.

This research adds further proof to the belief that humans can’t help but imitate the behavior of people around them. While the influence of behavior obviously varies, attitudinal bias is likely to be, as the researchers write, a sign that we have a unique mechanism for “learning both about and from other’s covert attitudes.” Their working theory is that following the influence of others is the basis for collective human behavior to occur, which is necessary to make societies work more smoothly. The problem this raises, of course, is that the repercussions of attitudinal influences can amount to bad choices — such as in this experiment, when people acted more risky with their money because their A.I. peers did so as well.

While the authors plan to see whether this attitude alignment holds true for people with different neuropsychiatric conditions, they say that, if anything, this research brings further clarity to what it means to be human.

“Our work is in line with an ongoing effort tending toward a computational understand of human and animal cognition,” co-author Jean Danunizeau, Ph.D., of France’s Brain and Spine Institute, said in a statement. “We showed that formal information and decision theories provide insights regarding the nature and relationship of puzzling biases of social cognition.”

Photos via Giphy (1, 2)