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Scientific Proof That Risky Behavior is Contagious

Monkey, see, monkey do has a basis in scientific research. In a new study, researchers found that the influence of those around us can affect our decisions to take risks.

Shinsuke Suzuki, co-author of the new study and postdoctoral scholar in neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology and colleagues writes,

Our present findings indicate that when an individual has the opportunity to consistently observe the risky behavior of another agent, one’s own risk-preference can be directly influenced.

Scientists have coined this as “behavioral contagion.” People can “catch” the tendency toward risky behavior based on being with people who are risk seeking. They can also shy away from risk-taking if others are observed avoiding risk. Yes, you can catch more from others that just the common cold.

Risky Behavior (Yale/Patrick Lynch)

Risky Behavior
(Yale/Patrick Lynch)

In the recent study, 24 people were set in a gambling situation. They were given 4-seconds to decide whether they wanted to say “yes” to the sure thing of $10 or willing to take a risk at getting a higher amount. Sometimes, they were also asked to observe others making the choice or even to predict someone else’s response, without seeing the outcome of their own choices.

The researchers found that when participants didn’t observe the choices others made, the majority behaved cautiously and were more likely to take the guaranteed $10. When they observed others taking the risk for a higher amount, they also took the risk, even without knowing if the risk paid off for those they were observing.

Neuroimaging

Neuroimaging

The participant’s brain activity were tracked to determine what was occurring on the neural level as they observed the risk-taking of others and when they made their own choices. Scans revealed neural activity in the caudate nucleus of the brain, linked to risk assessment.

From the report:

Using neuroimaging combined with computational modeling, we show that if we observe others behaving in risk-seeking/risk averse fashion, we become in turn more/less prone to isky behavior, and the behavioral shift is specifically implemented via neural processing of risk in a brain region, caudate nucleus. We further show that functional connectivity between the caudate and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region implicated in learning other’s risk-attitude, is associated with susceptibility to the contagion effect, providing an account for how our behavior can be influenced through observing other agents.

The researchers find that this may provide clues for understanding risk-taking patterns, especially in the financial markets where the perception of risk can be changed by the exposure to the risk preference of others.

These findings offer a neural map of how observing risk-takers can prompt one to behave in the same risk-taking way. Thus, our attitude toward risk influences our every day decision-making. We “follow the leader.”