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Laura Sanders, Frame of mind

Copycat mentality may be a hardwired way for animals to learn to avoid others’ mistakes

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Science News Prime | August 27, 2012 | Vol. 2, No. 32

Human beings are highly social creatures. But sometimes we seem to be a little too worried about what our fellow humans are up to. Think of the girl who runs out and buys the same exact shirt you wore last week, or that guy who repeats the hilarious joke you just cracked, but louder.

People like to do what other people do and want what other people have. This comes as no surprise to any human being who has ever attended, or known someone who has attended, high school. How else to explain the exponential proliferation of furry sheepskin Ugg boots sweating up the feet of freshman girls in Southern California? We are so tuned in to what other people do that we would, according to some mothers, follow our stupid teenage friends right off a bridge.

Neuroscientists are now starting to find out why our brains are so unoriginal. It turns out that often-maligned traits such as jealousy and herd mentality may actually serve some purpose: A copycat human may be the result of a brain hard at work figuring out how to navigate this complex world.

Adults who watched a video of another person’s hand reaching for a piece of candy found that particular treat to be more delicious than an untouched candy, a recent study found. A similar reaction occurred with other objects: Tools, clothes and toys that were about to get grabbed by another person held more allure than something that was left alone. When a person sees someone else with something, the brain assigns a higher value to that object, an upgrade that comes from the brain’s “mirror system,” which detects others’ actions, researchers in France reported in the May 23 Journal of Neuroscience.

This intense coveting of someone else’s stuff seems like a bad thing, requiring a commandment that forbids it. And trying to compete with others by buying what they bought is also considered distasteful in some circles. (Growing up, my brothers and I were warned against “keeping up with the Gotrocks.” We didn’t know who the Gotrocks were, but I’m starting to suspect that they are the subjects of The Real Housewives of Orange County.)

Scientists are scrutinizing another unseemly personality trait that also features prominently in the Real Housewives series: Humankind’s finely honed ability to spot another person’s mistake. This crucial error-catching system may reside in a small population of nerve cells in the brain’s medial frontal cortex, suggests a study of macaque monkeys described online August 5 in Nature Neuroscience. In the macaques, some of these neurons are highly tuned to other animals’ blunders. These cells fired only when a monkey witnessed his partner screw up, an error that cost both monkeys a treat.

Although the research was done in monkeys, people probably have a similar system, says study coauthor Masaki Isoda of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. Other studies have found that in people, neurons in the same region of the brain are sensitive to errors, both one’s own and other people’s. This error-detection system is responsible for flagging when a colleague misspeaks in a presentation, or when a writer confuses affect and effect.

Mixed in with envy, easy faultfinding and blame-casting sound like a great recipe for a jerk. But when coveting a neighbor’s goods (whether it’s an ass, an ox or anything else), and when tuned in to other people’s mistakes, the brain is actually engaging in a very sophisticated and smart learning process.

Like other animals, humans learn a lot from watching other members of their species. Parents rely on this exact trait when, under the heavy scrutiny of a wary toddler, they pretend to find pureed squash delicious.

Learning by watching other people is a way to escape the consequences of failure firsthand. The gladiator who ultimately vanquished his foe may have benefited by watching several unsuccessful attempts before his number was up.

Neuroscientist Matthew Shane of the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque says that this kind of social learning isn’t confined to simply watching, either. “My own thought is that we learn from reading,” he says. History books, classics, all the great literature that recounts humankind’s flubs can educate us on how to act and, perhaps more important, how not to act.

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