Everyone knows social networks are great for sharing information, but this facility extends to entire thought processes, as it enables a kind of cognitive copycat phenomenon, undermining our true
The finds, per a new study published in the journal of the Royal Society, is titled “Analytical Reasoning Task Reveals Limits of Social Learning in
Networks.” Researchers at the University of Oregon grouped 100 subjects into five “social networks” with 20 members each. The social networks were structured to have different levels
of “connectivity,” controlling the extent and frequency of interaction between subjects.
The subjects were then given a series of challenging “cognitive reflection
tests,” requiring the respondents to use their analytical skills to avoid arriving at the seemingly obvious (but incorrect) conclusion. Subjects first had to solve the problem themselves; then,
as the experiment went on, they were allowed to see answers from other members of their social network before they gave their own.
The researchers found that subjects in networks with
high connectivity were able to give the correct answer more often when they were allowed to see their neighbors’ answers first. The more connections an individual had, the more likely they were
to give correct answers.
But when the subjects were then forced to solve three more problems without the benefit of their social networks, the error rate rose to the previous levels,
when they were solving problems by themselves. In short, while the social networks had helped them get the right answer, they hadn’t improved their ability to think through the problems
The researchers summarized these results: “When people make false intuitive conclusions and are exposed to the analytic output of their peers, they recognize and
adopt this correct output. But they fail to engage analytical reasoning in similar subsequent tasks. Thus, humans exhibit an ‘unreflective copying bias,’ which limits their social learning
to the output, rather than the process, of their peers’ reasoning.”