Disinformation trumps honesty in competition for social influence

9 Dec 2021

One might think that when people continually seek advice from multiple experts to make decisions, the most accurate experts will be the ones that win the day. A new study shows that this is often not so.

© Anthony Berenyi

Social influence is a fundamental organizing principle in our societies. It is also a competitive exercise, because multiple influencers often compete for potential followers whose decisions and choices they wish to influence. Using methods of theoretical and behavioural game theory, Ph.D Jurgis Karpus and Dr. Bahador Bahrami from LMU Munich in cooperation with researchers from Germany, Israel (University of Haifa) , and the United Kingdom investigated which advice-giving strategies are most successful in winning over and retaining human clients in a competitive environment. Their study, which is published in the journal iScience, revealed that social influencers fair best in winning potential clients away from competition when they misreport evidence about facts that those clients care about.

"Approaching the process of persuasion and influence from a competitive viewpoint is important because the influencers’ ultimate goal is often not to provide the best information or service for their clients, but to outcompete their rivals,” says Jurgis Karpus, a behavioural game theorist and a philosopher at LMU Munich

A strategic adviser is able to outperform an honest adviser

“We show that a strategic, rational adviser communicates information to the client honestly when the client favours them, but lies about it when the client favours the competitor,” explains Bahador Bahrami, a social neuroscientist at LMU Munich.The study with seven experiments revealed, that a strategic adviser is able to outperform an honest adviser in swaying individuals, the majority vote in anonymously voting groups, and the consensus vote in communicating groups of clients.

“A key psychological insight emerging from our work is that the slogan of ‘voting for change’ can be exploited by a manipulative adviser that follows the game-theoretic optimal strategy,” adds Dr. Ralf Kurvers, a social psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and one of the lead authors of the study.

The results highlight an important point: unsubstantiated opinions that are at odds with mainstream views can often appeal to a broad audience of voters who are electing someone to make decisions on their behalf. The next step will be to investigate which human character traits are especially vulnerable to such manipulative strategies that thrive on deception, and to develop ways to empower people to see through such opportunistic lies.

Publication: Ralf Kurvers, Uri Hertz, Jurgis Karpus, Marta Balode, Bertrand Jayles, Ken Binmore, Bahador Bahrami: „Strategic disinformation outperforms honesty in competition for social influence“. In: iScience 2021.

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