Like ants, humans (voters) are easily led /By Roger Highfield
When it comes to being misled, humans are no more sophisticated than ants or fish.
Implications for evacuations and how to guide people safely in an emergency will arise from the discovery that most of us are happy to play follow-my-leader, even if we are trailing after someone who does not know where they are going and taking the most meandering route.
Even more striking, even when we are shown a faster route, we prefer to stick with the old one and tell others to take the long road too, a finding that could have lethal implications when it comes to evacuating a building or ship in an emergency.
"These results parallel similar findings in ants and fish, and show that very simple processes can underlie human behaviour" commented Dr Simon Reader of Utrecht University, who reports the findings today in the journal Biology Letters.
In the experiments, 72 people - 40 women and 32 men - were asked to complete questionnaires in one room, then taken to another room where they were to complete an experiment.
"We led them one of two routes into the room (while talking about other things), and, later, asked them to return to the starting room," said Dr Reader.
"All but one person took the route they had been led. What we were surprised by was how strong this effect was, even when the alternative route was much shorter," he said.
They preferred the long route even when the experimenter had drawn attention to the alternative route, or when the experimenter took the long route solely to pick up a fallen poster, eliminating the possibility that participants thought the experimenter had a good, but unknown, reason to take the long route.
By asking participants to collect the next guinea pig in the experiment, the scientists observed that each person in the chain copied the route of the participant before them: a simple tradition that meant the alternative route was never discovered.
In a fire or emergency, then, people would likely stick to the familiar evacuation route, even if it was much slower than an alternative.