The threat of punishment and humans’ seemingly innate tendency to copy other behaviors form the basis of a psychological model that explains how traditions or entrenched ideals are formed and maintained in society.

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Animal behaviorists have extensively studied social learning and how it relates to danger. For instance, when there’s a threat a flock of birds will quickly react and fly away after one member signals the presence of a predator. Yet, this kind of social learning dimension has been given little thought in human-centered research.

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Swedish researchers conducted 4 experiments which included 120 participants, showing that humans, if threatened with punishment, are exceptionally prone to copy and transmit the behavior observed in others. In the first experiment, participants had to choose between two pictures, A and B, on a screen 20 times. If they chose the wrong picture, they were told they’d receive an electric shock, which they had felt beforehand (fear factor). The catch is, however, that there is no wrong answer and no electric shock would be applied no matter the chosen picture. Before making their choice, the participants watched a video of a person taking part in the same experiment, but without being shown whether he got zapped or not. The person in the video choose picture A each time. Surprisingly, so did the subjects in more than 95 percent of their choices.

In a second experiment, instead of a electric zap for choosing the wrong answer, participants were promised a reward for the right answer. This time, they adhered to the choices shown in the video only 60% of the time. In an experiment where there was the threat of an arbitrary punishment, adherence to the example in the video dropped to below 70 percent.

“Our conclusion is that when we are promised a reward, we are more inclined to break the pattern, and social learning tends to play a smaller role. But when it comes to avoiding danger, social learning has a powerful influence on our behaviour when it is proved to yield good results. But in cases where social learning is shown not offer effective protection from danger, we are also more inclined to break the pattern,” says Andreas Olsson, docent and research team leader at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet.

This explains why some people follow a lead when faced with the prospect of punishment. To see if this also becomes transmitted, in the last experiment ten subjects were separately shown the video in which the person choose option A and were asked to make their choice. Then another ten persons were shown a video recording of one of the first ten subjects choosing between the two photographs. Again, they were not shown the consequences of his choice. When five generations of had made their choices after watching someone from the previous generation make their choice, picture A remained the chosen alternative in 95 percent of answers.

The two mechanisms – the tendency to copy the actions of others through social learning, together with the rewarding properties of avoiding a threatening punishment, whether it exists or not in reality – might explain how traditions arise and are maintained, as reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. We’re all guilty of it, least we forget. It’s easy to be judgmental of other people wearing funny clothes or some religion. It’s easy because everybody’s doing it and because we’re afraid of the social cost of non-conformity. After all, people follow the norm even when it’s dictated by a computer , and it’s wrong.

“Arbitrarily prohibiting certain types of food, for example, that do not need to be avoided for any particular reason, could be maintained because the individuals in the group will tend to fear the disapproval of their group peers if they ate the forbidden food,” says Björn Lindström, a researcher at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience.