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Is laziness contagious?

If you're a total sloth the entire weekend, it might not be your fault.
/ Source: TODAY

When the weekend hits, you have every intention of tackling your to-do list, but by the time 4 p.m. rolls around, you still haven't left the house and more than likely, you're on the couch with your family. What went wrong?

It might be their laziness causing you to feel sluggish as well, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS. Researchers from INSERM, the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Paris, found we actually unconsciously imitate others’ attitudes around us. The traits studied — including prudence, impatience and laziness — tend to mimic others’ over time.

“Although you might think that traits such as laziness, impatience and prudence are entrenched personality traits, in fact they are under the influence of others,” Jean Daunizeau, one of the authors of the paper, told TODAY.

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Daunizeau and fellow researcher Marie Devaine asked 56 people between the ages of 20 and 30 to take part in a series of trials that measured how much their decisions were influenced by others. Participants were asked to make choices between different monetary rewards, both before and after they saw the others (who were actually computer-generated agents) making similar decisions.

For laziness, participants had to choose between rewards that varied in how much physical effort they had to put in to receive the reward. For impatience, participants had to choose between rewards that varied in how long it would take to receive. Finally, for prudence, participants had to choose how much risk they were willing to take on to receive a reward — for instance, did they want a sure $10, or only a 50 percent shot at $50?

The results? After watching others, participants’ decisions were much more closely in line with the artificial agents’ decisions. Even more surprising? “People seem to be unaware that they are drifting, aligning their attitudes to others’,” Daunizeau said.

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The fact that our attitudes start to mirror others’ is not surprising: According to the study, learning about other people's attitudes is essential for social interactions. It’s part of the process of learning useful information about the environment, which in turn can aid decision-making.

What’s behind this unconscious mimicking? The researchers identified two different cognitive biases at work in the experiment: the false-consensus bias (we assume other people think like us) and the social influence bias (people believing their attitudes should be similar to others’).

“What they’re showing in this work is that there’s reason to believe that these two biases are good and beneficial for people’s decision-making, and they help with being able to learn from the behaviors of others," said Peter Todd, a professor in the cognitive science program at Indiana University.

For example, if I saw someone taking more of a risk, I might assume that if I knew what they do, I would do the same. And thus, I would wind up taking the same risks.

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One limitation that Todd noted, however, is that in the study, the participants are able to see all of the options that the others are choosing between.

“That’s highly artificial,” he said. “In reality, we probably often see what choice someone made, but not what all the options were that they were considering, which will limit our ability to learn their attitudes.”

More studies conducted in natural settings could help show whether the results of this research extends to these real-life situations as well.

The researchers hope that further studies will help answer some other lingering questions, including how long this mimicking effect lasts, said Daunizeau.