Are your opinions really your own?

Posed photo
PHOTO: The Straits Times

The downstairs room of a central London pub is not where most psychologists would choose to stage an experiment in decision-making, but for Daniel Richardson it is ideal. A researcher at University College London, he is interested in how people's thinking is influenced by those around them - for example, whether seeing other people's choices affects our own.

For this he requires real-world settings where people mingle and socialise, rather than a psychology lab where they are typically quarantined.

Tonight around 50 of us are gathered in the Phoenix Arts Club in Soho to take part in one of Richardson's "mass participation" studies. There is a jovial air, and he stands before us with his sleeves rolled up like a compere at a variety show. Yet this is serious science.

We are each logged onto a specially configured website that enables us to move a dot around on our touchscreens, which moves a corresponding dot on a large screen at the front of the room. Our collective thoughts are up there for all to see (and for Richardson to measure). When everyone moves their dot, the screen resembles a swarm of agitated bees.

When we get the hang of it, he throws out his first test question: "Have you ever cheated on a test?"

The 'nos' move their dots to the left, the 'yeses' to the right. We answer first in isolation, with all the dots hidden, and then as a group. What Richardson wants to know is whether the two conditions produce different results. Are we more honest when we answer alone? Do we change our story in response to others?

The main experiment begins - and now we are asked our opinions.

Read the full article here.

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