New study shows that copying helps the one who imitates, AND the one who is imitated

Our “Creature League” study has been mentioned at Science Daily, ScienceNewslineIU’s News Room, Medical Xpress, EurekAlert!, and Science Codex.  Here’s an audio description of the work, courtesy of Academic Minute.  Participants in the group behavior experiment of Wisdom, Song, and Goldstone (2013) tried to assemble teams of Pokemon-like creatures that scored well. Each creature was associated with a score for itself, but some pairs of creatures also produced positive or negative scores. Because of these interactions between creatures, the problem of assembling high-scoring teams posed a difficult search problem for participants. Participants could assemble their teams by 1) using their previous teams (status quo), 2) taking creatures from their historically best team (retrieval), 3) dragging untested creatures from the league of creatures (innovating), or 4) dragging individual creatures or entire teams from other participants’ solutions (imitating).

Some of the interesting results from this study were:

1)    Participants tend to do BETTER when surrounded by imitators.  One of the primary mechanisms for this is that when a person comes up with a good solution, their peers copy the solution, and sometime improve upon it.  The person who was originally imitated can then benefit from these subsequent solutions (cliff swallows show a similar collective dynamic, with birds benefitting by being imitated while foraging).  Imitation also acts as a cultural memory for what has worked well in the past.  If an innovator’s solution to a problem is preserved by imitators, then the innovator does not have to remember their solution themselves.

2)  As problem increased in difficulty, solutions were less diverse, and exploration was less prevalent.

3) Participants were more likely to imitate popular choices. above and beyond what would be expected from random copying of solution elements.

4)  Participants are more likely to imitate a solution that is increasing in popularity among peers.

5) Participants are more likely to imitate solutions that are similar to their current solutions.  This helps avoid hybrids/cross-breeds that don’t score well.

6) Participants begin a game by imitating and innovating relatively often, and end by more conservatively sticking to their existing solution.  The best scoring strategy was to stick close to an existing solution, and innovating was worst.

7)  At a group level, diversity of solutions decreased over rounds of a game.  Bigger groups did better, but bigger groups also showed less diversity.

See a movie clip of the game in action


Play the game yourself