Virtual peer pressure generated by a computer simulation can boost individual effort and may be as motivating as actually seeing a friend or colleague succeed at a task, a new study has found.
Peer pressure is a proven social motivator. Researchers at the New York University (NYU) probed this human attribute – sensitivity to competition from peers.
They found that not only is virtual pressure from a computer-simulated peer just as motivating as the real thing, but that “fake” competition can be used for citizen science projects.
Researchers formulated a mathematical model of human behaviour that successfully predicted group responses across conditions.
They designed an experiment to test whether virtual peer pressure could boost individual participation in a citizen science project they founded in 2012, Brooklyn Atlantis.
Citizen science projects rely on volunteers from the general public to aid professional scientists by collecting and reporting data using their home computers or smartphones.
All crowd-sourced science projects face a similar challenge. Despite having many registered participants, the majority of contributions come from a small, highly engaged group of volunteers, researchers said.
They created an experiment to determine if the presence of a virtual peer could enhance volunteer contributions.
They redesigned the interface of the Brooklyn Atlantis page where users view and tag images, adding an indicator bar at the top of the screen to display the number of times another participant had tagged the same image.
This was the performance of the virtual peer, and the researchers created five distinct scenarios for the virtual peer’s performance.
Splitting the 120 participants, they formed a control group with no virtual peer and two groups for which the virtual peer’s performance varied according to an independent algorithm.
For the three remaining groups, the virtual peer’s performance varied in relation to the user: One consistently underperformed the real user, one consistently outperformed, and the other performed on par with the real user.
The results show that pressure from a virtual peer can influence the behaviour of a citizen scientist.
The highest-performing group of real users were those who saw a virtual peer that consistently outperformed them.
Conversely, the group who saw a virtual peer that underperformed them contributed fewer tags than any other group, including the peer-free control group.
“Social comparison is a strong driver of behaviour, and it’s exciting to see that even simulated performance was enough to influence our participants to tag more or fewer objects,” said Maurizio Porfiri, professor at NYU.