We copy others much more than we think and that is why it is dangerous to live in bubbles

We copy others much more than we think and that is why it is dangerous to live in bubbles

When you wake up with images of people in disguise taking the United States Capitol, one wonders how a certain group of people could have come to the conclusion that this would be good, aesthetic, interesting or any other flattering epithet.

The point is, we don’t understand them (and they don’t understand us) because we live in increasingly impermeable bubbles (perhaps fueled by social media algorithms and partisanship and political demagogy). Underneath all this problem lies our greatest gift, and also our problem: that we are expert copiers of what surrounds us.

Memes and bubbles

Imitation is embedded in the neurological circuits of our brain. If our behavior differs from the behavior of the people around us, then neurons emit an alarm signal: regions associated with reinforcement learning and those that modulate reward are activated. According to the neurologist Vasily Klucharev , we act like this because we perceive that, by going as a group, we will obtain more benefits. Gregariousness, then, thrives on its inherent evolutionary advantages.

All of us are born with this programming in the brain: imitate others to increase your chances of survival . For this reason, as soon as we are born, we already tend to imitate those around us, as has been observed in babies of a few months.

Although it seems like an insignificant action (and in some areas it is even considered unseemly or illegal) copying others is the system by which human beings have progressed culturally throughout history. And also, as I will explain a little later, copying is not as easy as it seems: in fact it is so difficult that only human beings are capable of doing it with the appropriate precision.

When we are born we present ourselves in a generally hostile environment full of imponderables that we do not know in advance. For example, we do not know that perhaps there is a certain predator that could hunt us if we leave the town. Or that it is not a good idea to touch a plug with wet hands. Or that you have to run if there is a fire. The only way we can learn all these rules of survival is through instruction.

However, the time required to receive all this information is not exactly short . There are so many tips and details that we must learn that, while we do so, we may be victims of electricity or the teeth of a predator. So we have to look for a shortcut until we have figured out the details. That shortcut is imitation.

This was reflected in an experiment carried out by Jens Krause and John Dyer at the University of Leeds, UK: 5% of the members of a crowd are enough to influence the direction the crowd will take.

Another famous experiment in this regard was carried out in 1968 by psychologist Stanley Milgram on a New York sidewalk. Milgram was dedicated to observing the behavior of 1,424 pedestrians as they walked along a 15-meter long section of sidewalk. Previously, Milgram had placed his associates on the sidewalk who, following his directions, would suddenly stop and stare out of a sixth-floor window in a nearby building for exactly one minute.

The important thing about this experiment is that, in the window where Milgram’s collaborators looked, there was nothing exceptional, there was only another of Milgram’s assistants. What happened to the pedestrians in that area?


After reviewing the video recordings that Milgram had made, it was observed that some pedestrians also stopped and looked where the hooks or stimulus groups were looking. But the people who stopped also depended on the people who had already stopped: Milgran recorded what happened when one of his collaborators stopped to look at the window, and also what happened when more than one collaborator stopped. The effects were different. As Nicholas Christakis explains in his book Connected :

If 4 per cent of pedestrians stopped when that "group" consisted of one person, up to 40 per cent did so when the group consisted of fifteen. (…) More interesting than this difference, however, is that the stimulus group made up of five people had almost as much influence on the behavior of pedestrians as the group of fifteen. That is, in this scenario, groups of more than five people caused almost no new effect on pedestrian behavior.

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Although we also imitate others to forge more powerful ties with them. By dressing like them, by acquiring their customs or their ways of speaking, we are somehow telling them that we are like them, and that they should let us join the group. Because in a group we also increase the chances of survival. In the end, if we imitate our peers, echo chambers are created , more and more isolated, more and more different from other echo chambers. Bubbles increasingly separated from each other.

This gap of misunderstanding can cause others to end up looking strange, silly, caricatures of people. Some disguise themselves, others do demagoguery, others have bad faith … no matter what we see: we are going to see it more and more . Positions will become more and more radicalized, be it surrounding Congress, storming the Capitol and burning the streets, whether they are akin to the procés, Black Lives Matters or the rednecks who take Trump’s word as the Bible.

And if there is any doubt or plot fissure, any minimal cognitive dissonance, then hatred of the other, ethnicism, racism, xenophobia, classism and, in short, group identity, will do the rest. Because we all, more and more, live in bubbles :