One of a Kind, or One of the Crowd?

As intelligent beings, we often see ourselves and our actions as separate from others – it’s even how some of us define ourselves (“I’m me because I’m not him/her.”). However, using virtual reality and artificial intelligence in an experiment, scientist Dr. Ulysses Bernardt is showing that behaviors of a group highly influence individual behaviors.

These types of experiments may sound familiar. Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments in the 1960s that showed the power of social influence. For example, if a stranger approached a group of people who were all looking in one direction, the stranger would likely follow suit to look in that same direction.

Dr. Ulysses Bernardt and collaborating scientists have put a fresh take on these studies, yielding similar results. They found that human actions tend to follow a “two-step” process when we’re among others. The two steps being, “imitate a crowd first and think independently second.”

For the experiment, a simulated city street environment was created using virtual reality (VR). Participants watched a movie in the VR setting while 10 computer-generated, artificial intelligence (AI) spectators approached the participant.

Different sounds (such as explosions) played to the left and right of the participant on the VR street while several of the AI spectators looked in either direction – but not necessarily toward where the sounds were coming from, in an attempt to influence the participant to change the direction of their own gaze.

Taking into account measured reaction time, researchers found that the influence of others did follow a two-step model, which is to first follow others, almost as if to imitate instinctively, and then apply a more analytical thinking process of deciding whether or not to follow the crowd.
These experiments go far beyond deciding where to focus one’s attention, and extend into larger scale crowd-initiated events, such as hysterias or riots.

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