Social Copying from Wasps to Humans

Sometimes I am just so lucky to be in the right place at the right time.  I had the opportunity to join my granddaughter, Isabelle, for a week. She was doing an internship at the Santa Fe Institute.  She and her friend were studying the behavior of large groups, among other things.One question, how do people (mostly young people) use Snapchat?  Apparently Snapchat enables people to do “small talk”.  Apparently they like to hang out with each other and show photos and be loosely connected. Of course I am older and like to be deeply connected.  So while they were drawing diagrams and figuring out millions of signals, I reconnected with an old friend, Norman Johnson, PhD.[1] We too have a deep interest in understanding human behavior.

IMG_5444 (1).jpg


The conversation started with Norman’s interest in threats and social copying (doing what others do, forgetting your own interests) and how under stress we tend to do more and more social copying and this tends to influences behavior in a group.

Norman approaches problems from a macro perspective: biological warfare, financial markets and traffic jams. Often he will design computer simulations to test his ideas. Since he is interested in how to influence behavior he has also trained people in conflict resolution. Meanwhile, I am observing how families function as emotional units, managing threats in automatic ways, while at the same time producing leaders who often have the ability to be more differentiated and responsible for defining principles.

In the U. S today we have a political situation fanned by fear and spread by social media that encourages and increases polarization and social copying.  Your family and/or friends think that the “other” person is awful and so do you.  A direct result of polarization is that there is little to no agreement on the nature of the problems we face and therefore little ability to cooperate. We are just for being comfortable in our social group so we are against someone else. Perhaps an unintended byproduct of democracy is that under threat, we resort to joining with the “group think” of our in-group.

It is challenging to see the situation we are in. Like the frogs who are still content as the warm water begins to boil, it may be too late when we notice the problem.  No message arrives in the morning news announcing today is the day when you will be bombarded with seven degrees of fearful and disturbing information that may cause you to be social copying or – fill in the blank.

If we can recognize when we are becoming reactive rather than thinking for self, perhaps we can return to more rational or logical thinking.  But if, as in a family, the group may benefit from someone else being the problem, then it takes another order of awareness to see the system and our part in polarization and the seductive comfort of social copying.


Main points from my conversation with Norman Johnson

1) Under conditions of increasing threat various social species are unable to focus on task and begin to copy one another. This kind of social copying behavior can be useful under specific circumstances but the tendency to copy one another is automatic.  It is more important to our instinctive way of reacting to fear than the tendency to think and understand and to be more logical or even rational.

2) Social copying is not cooperation but it can look like it as animals and humans begin to circle the wagons to protect the group.

3) It is difficult to encourage animals to cooperate when they are threatened.

4) One way of encouraging cooperation is to alter the environment: Force animals to cooperate by a) looking at one another and b) both pressing a bar to obtain water. This series of “forced” encounters rewards the animals,  reduces threats, and increases cooperation.  By altering the environment to force animals to cooperate, the animals could tolerate eight times the social density.  The rules of the system (two animals must press the bar to get water) became beliefs that an animal was willing to die for.[2]

5) The rules of the system are not perceived as something that can be altered.    In the movie “The Lobster”, there is a good example of how humans blindly follow the rules the system imposed on them because they are not able to see or challenge them.

6) One has to be seen as a member of the “group” to be listened to.  The messenger is more important than the message.  Therefore, people and animals do not listen to or are not easily led by someone who is not or demonstrates that they are not in your group.  If they do not vote your party, if they are not in the same branch of the military etc., they are not in “your group”.

7) Family observations show that if there is one individual who can manage to be different within the group and not react to threats, that person can slowly alter the behavior of the group.

8) Those who strive to be more autonomous are altering the belief that we all must be alike, believe and act in the same way in order for us all to be safe.


Conversation between Norman and Andrea (only for those who like to go deep)

Norman Johnson (NJ):  Social organisms have a universal characteristic.  We tend to think social organisms are all about cooperation and while that’s true, it’s also about social copying which is a “circling the wagons” mentality. One of the smallest examples is five hornets that live socially in the nest. All you have to do is disturb them, you don’t have to threaten them.  If you poke a stick in the nest they start to socially copy one another.  They stop doing their individual tasks. They look around and seem to be saying “what are others doing?” And that’s what they do.

The funny thing is they and we stop solving problems when we are disturbed or fearful.  This is what happened to us after 9/11.  We became uncertain and then hyper-patriotic and did some dumb things.

Andrea Schara (AMS):  Are you talking about how we invaded Iraq looking for chemical weapons after we invaded Afghanistan to punish/kill Al Queda for the 9/11 attacks?

NJ:  Well, yes that was a horrible thing, but on the local level we repressed the Muslim population. These were the very people that rationally we needed to work with in order to understand why this just happened. Instead we outlawed and isolated them.

Hence we did the exact opposite of the rational thing. We circled the wagons and therefore were unable to solve real problems. Leaders take advantage of that and currently Trump is a good example of this.  He talks about fearful events and how bad things are and in essence he is amplifying the social uncertainty that people have.

AMS:  You recall the work of Jack Calhoun, PhD[3] who studied the inability of animals to solve problems and the social regression in which animals either piled together in groups, a form of social copying, or withdrew from interactions.  These mice had all the food and water they needed but due to the increasing population they had less social space. As the numbers of interactions increased with the increasing population, there was no time to recover from frustrating or fearful interactions.   So Calhoun designed an environment to “force cooperation.” In the cooperative universe two animals had to walk down a path to press a bar in order to obtain water. In the “dis-cooperative” universe only one animal could press the bar to produce water. No other animal was allowed to enter the pathway.  This design required animals to look at one another and depend on one another to cooperate in order to obtain water. Calhoun saw that by structuring the environment in a way that forced animals to notice each other and therefore cooperate the animals could tolerate eight times the increase in density before the “universe” collapsed.

NJ:  Yes, I recall that there was the one deviant animal in the cooperative pen. He had been trained to obey the rules in the “dis-cooperative” universe.  This mouse had accidently entered the universe where two animals had to walk down together in order to get water.   Since the rules were different in his own universe (only one animal at a time went to get water) he was almost killed trying to get these “cooperative” animals to go along with the rules he lived by in his dis-cooperative system. (You could consider this to be obedience to one’s internalized ethical commands learned in his system.) I still use this example when I give talks.

AMS:   One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the way the system is set up and the way our brain interacts with the surrounding clues. If I hear you Norman, the fact that we are disturbed reduces our ability to be rational and to solve problems.  To remain rational one has to decrease fear. How aware are people of the social clues that are impacting their brain and manipulating them?   Both political parties may use words and slogans that manipulate the behavior of the group. How do people know what is happening to their brain as they listen?

NJ:  Hitler used a fear based approach to get his followers to believe he saw the truth.  Trump seems to be the Pied Piper for those who are the most vulnerable to social copying. Hillary Clinton and her gang seem to use raw power behind the scenes manipulation. Trump is a modern era leader using social media with very little substance, feeding on the anger which makes people more fearful and more inclined to social copying.


AMS:  Social copying is a great expression and perhaps it would lead people to greater awareness if that concept became better known. I don’t think I’ve read about it anywhere.

NJ:  There were two main things that Dr. Merle Lefkoff and I observed while doing a study of the science behind the field of conflict resolution.

  • When you have people in conflict they are each defending their own social identity group. So that reduces the rationality in the individual. The result is that rational arguments by the conflict negotiator fail as a mechanism to bring people together.
  • What does work is to get people relaxed or make them feel comfortable with the uncertainty they have. Then they can become open to rational arguments for cooperation. I have done this in many social groups.

AMS:  We use Zengar neurofeedback as part of the program for Navigating Systems DC. [4] In the first part of the day, before people start exchanging ideas, everyone has a neurofeedback session. This kind of equipment and method, reorganizes the brain. People report being more open and relaxed.  They seem to have the ability to perceive the environment as non-threatening.  But neurofeedback is an expensive technology that you can’t really use for vast numbers of people.


NJ:  Meditation is useful for sure. But I think what Trump is exploiting is the broad economic uncertainty largely due to economic disparity (the 1% getting most of the increased wealth in the last 60 years). People feel that the 1% or China or Mexico or someone is taking their subsistence, and in their uncertainty villainize the “other”.  In addition, the family unit has been degraded and so in that kind of uncertain situation, people’s fears can be amplified and they can then be manipulated.

When there is more collective fear, people become more easily manipulated.

The military is a really good example of the system that promotes a strong social group identity as a way of coping with threat. Soldiers have been taught to count on one another. They know how to circle the wagon and survive because of it.

Dr. Merle Lefkoff concluded: you cannot give leaders the solution.  You can make them comfortable and give them tools to discover answers for themselves. But you cannot tell them what to do.

AMS:  You don’t want them to become robots?

NJ:  You cannot tell them because you are the “other” and will not be listened to.  This is an example of where the “messenger is more important than the message.” I will accept what you say if you are of my tribe, but if you are not, I will not even hear you.

AMS:  Can you give me an example of this?

NJ:  For example if I were to walk up to an unknown military person and I was of his tribe, I would immediately accept him/her. Together we’d say “Oh, you are part of my tribe” and accept anything each of us said – assuming we are in a certain state of mind. In addition, if the person were in military uniform I would know a great deal more about him or her. But if I were not in the military system, his/her tribe, the details of the uniform would just be noise to me and all I would see is a military person. And depending on whether or not I am in an uncertain state, they might be “other”, a stranger, or I might be neutral about them.

So if someone who is a member of your tribe says something to you that is slightly off or you don’t agree with them, you would still like them because they’re part of your tribe.  You would allow them in. But if they were part of an opposing social group then this is where the identity would come into play and the conflict would arise. If they’re from another tribe you would not listen to them, no matter how good their argument is.  The messenger is more important than the message.

A lot of the challenge for the police today is that they see the other, who is black, as not in my tribe. And the people in black neighborhoods see the police as not in my tribe.

AMS:  Yes, the chief of police in Dallas seems to understand this and was trying to recruit people from the neighborhood to police their own neighborhood.   This was more the right answer but despite this people objected to his ideas. Perhaps they were not in his tribe so they could not listen to anything rational that he was saying.

NJ:  One of the biggest barriers to problem solving is social identity.  We need to address that one and secondly we need to develop tools they don’t trigger social identity when we’re problem solving.  A couple of months ago I was in Washington DC and I gave a talk to 400 federal employees representing 60 federal agencies. As an audience they understood more of the message than any of the crowds I have talked to.

AMS: Is that because they have to deal with this on a daily basis for their survival?

NJ:  Yes, and a lot of them were minorities and they’re very aware of marginalization because of being different.

Have you heard of the example about where different ethnic groups put their ketchup in the kitchen? African Americans store their ketchup not in the refrigerator like whites do, but out on the counter. There’s nothing on the bottle that says you should refrigerate ketchup.   Restaurants leave ketchup on the counter, but white people have been socialized by their group identity to put the ketchup in the fridge.

Scott Page was the first person to give this as an example of how strongly we may be patterned. The storage of ketchup wasn’t a hot issue.   People hearing it can become aware of how strongly they may be patterned, but without judging it to be right or wrong.

AMS:  Well, social pressure to display similar habits that tells us which tribe we belong to wins again.  Social copying makes for a social identity and leads to an “us against them” situation when the group is disturbed or fearful.

NJ:  And they reinforce each other.   Uncertainty leads to copying, which leads to stronger collective uncertainty, which leads to more copying….

AMS:  As you know Bowen tried to describe differentiation of self as the ability to be sure of one’s own principles and beliefs as one defines a self and at the same time remains connected to important people.  So differentiation would be the recognition that my social identity is continuously being established with my family, since family members may not always be on the right track, especially if there’s a crazy person in the family.

The family unit, perhaps at an instinctive level, can be observed to pick on those who are different and often marginalize them even though they are in the same family.  Families, organizations and nations seem to all generate an “us against them” scapegoating process.

One way of dealing with the tendency to scapegoat and project onto others is to encourage family leaders to get to know extended family members. (These are often people who are strangers to you, “others”.)   You know they are part of your family but since they are more “distant” from your immediate family, you may be able to tolerate their differences more than you can tolerate the differences of those family members closest to you.


In other words, more extended family members, the “others”, are in a distant but related tribe, not the tribe you are the most loyal to.  They could have reasons to be suspicious of you and you would have to extend yourself to get to know them and all of this requires decreasing fear and increasing the ability to get to know “the other.”


Bowen noted: One speculation is that it is easier to observe family patterns and to take ‘action’ on issues in the more distant, but equally important family of origin, than in relation to one’s spouse in whom immediate needs are more imbedded, and with whom it is more difficult to take emotional stances. This effort requires the trainee to take responsibility for his own life and to accept the working proposition he, through his own efforts, can modify his own family system.[5]

NJ:  Bowen is great because he’s always looking at these outer effects of socialization.

AMS:  Yes, this is not the kind of thing one person does on their own, at least not so far.  Right now it takes having heard of Bowen and his theory. Most people are more interested in finding out about their dead relatives as in, than meeting and dealing with the ones who are alive.

Defining a self  as a method to strengthen self in the era of automatic copying has not yet become a meme.

Therefore the thesis is that once people recognize how they are being influenced automatically to do things, to follow people, they MAY want to take back their autonomy.

People can get very caught up in following and copying during a presidential election and then wonder how did I fall for that person?

There are many ways to steady yourself once you can accept that you are automatically influenced, by a threat, an image or a word beyond your ability to notice.  

The main question:

Am I social copying or am I socially coping?





[1] The Applied Science of Collective Intelligence: Solving the grand challenges facing humanity(Link)

Invited paper to the Spanda Journal, special issue on Collective Intelligence

January 2015





[5] From Coach to Coach, Murray Bowen, MD, abstract of paper presented at Annual Georgetown Family Symposium, Washington, DC, 1970



  1. So interesting…need to dig into conversation. Now on my way to Vermont. It will be nice to think there, catch-up with friends, and cool off. Sent from my iPhone


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s