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PLoS Comput Biol. 2013 Oct;9(10):e1003275. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003275. Epub 2013 Oct 24.

Keeping up with the Joneses: interpersonal prediction errors and the correlation of behavior in a tandem sequential choice task.

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  • 1Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, Roanoke, Virginia, United States of America.


In many settings, copying, learning from or assigning value to group behavior is rational because such behavior can often act as a proxy for valuable returns. However, such herd behavior can also be pathologically misleading by coaxing individuals into behaviors that are otherwise irrational and it may be one source of the irrational behaviors underlying market bubbles and crashes. Using a two-person tandem investment game, we sought to examine the neural and behavioral responses of herd instincts in situations stripped of the incentive to be influenced by the choices of one's partner. We show that the investments of the two subjects correlate over time if they are made aware of their partner's choices even though these choices have no impact on either player's earnings. We computed an "interpersonal prediction error", the difference between the investment decisions of the two subjects after each choice. BOLD responses in the striatum, implicated in valuation and action selection, were highly correlated with this interpersonal prediction error. The revelation of the partner's investment occurred after all useful information about the market had already been revealed. This effect was confirmed in two separate experiments where the impact of the time of revelation of the partner's choice was tested at 2 seconds and 6 seconds after a subject's choice; however, the effect was absent in a control condition with a computer partner. These findings strongly support the existence of mechanisms that drive correlated behavior even in contexts where there is no explicit advantage to do so.

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