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Exploring the link between crowds and risk-taking

Most people are risk averse and subsequently skeptical of new things. To make people like something new, put them in a crowded environment.

Humans evolved to prioritise caution due to the survival advantages it conferred in ancient times, when life-threatening risks like predator encounters were commonplace. Ancestors who exhibited risk aversion were likelier to survive and pass on their genes. Despite the reduced prevalence of life-threatening risks in the modern era, this innate tendency persists. Many individuals favour familiarity over novelty, perpetuating a reluctance to embrace change.

This inherent risk aversion presents a significant obstacle to the widespread adoption of innovative technologies. The diffusion of new technologies follows a social process, with only a minority initially embracing them before influencing the majority market. Consequently, when new technologies reach broader audiences, they often face resistance and negative feedback from the risk-averse majority.

Figure 1. Most people are risk-averse and are more alert to risks associated with innovation
Credit. Author

Some individuals with an exceptionally high-risk aversion may choose not to adopt new technologies altogether. For instance, before the pandemic, approximately 10% of people had never made an online purchase due to concerns about the risk of lost items in transit or simply because they preferred their existing methods.

Human beings tend to be more sensitive to potential risks than to potential benefits when evaluating new developments. This tendency holds for humanoid technology as well. When considering humanoid robots, individuals often focus more on the negative aspects, such as concerns about job competition.

Being in a crowded environment makes people risk-takers

Meanwhile, there are ways to reduce or even alter people’s risk-aversion tendencies to become more favorable to new things. One way to do it is to put people in a human herd. People become substantially less risk-averse or even shift to taking risks with others. An evolutionary perspective suggests that this phenomenon may stem from the ancestral need for collective bravery during hunting or defending the tribe in warfare. In such contexts, avoiding risk at all costs could jeopardize the group’s survival, leading individuals to adjust their risk tolerance accordingly.

The Crowd Effect on human-robot interaction

Interestingly, the presence of a crowd significantly influences people’s perceptions of new phenomena, particularly in the context of human-robot interaction. When individuals find themselves in a crowded environment, their evaluation of humanoid robots undergoes a notable shift. In such settings, the eerie sensation often associated with humanoids diminishes compared to when individuals are in relatively uncrowded spaces. Furthermore, the perception of humanoids as a potential threat to employment decreases significantly in crowded environments compared to uncrowded ones. Fear towards humanoids similarly diminishes in crowded settings compared to uncrowded ones.

This change in attitude towards humanoids based on environmental conditions can be attributed to risk aversion. In crowded environments, individuals exhibit significantly lower levels of risk aversion, leading to a more favorable disposition towards novel experiences and technologies such as humanoid robots.

Figure 3. Being in a crowded environment makes people less risk-averse and more favorable to humanoids
Credit. Author

The implications of these findings extend beyond human-robot interaction to encompass how individuals evaluate innovation across various domains. Introducing new technologies in crowded environments is an effective strategy for fostering acceptance and enthusiasm among individuals.

This phenomenon, known as the ‘crowd effect,’ underscores the idea that people become more receptive to novel experiences when surrounded by others. The reduced sense of risk aversion in crowded settings contributes to this increased openness and comfort toward trying something new. Thus, leveraging the crowd effect can enhance the likelihood of widespread adoption and positive reception of innovative technologies.

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Journal reference

Kim, R. Y. (2024). Being in a Crowd Shifts People’s Attitudes Toward Humanoids. International Journal of Social Robotics, 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12369-024-01108-2

Rae Yule Kim is an assistant professor of marketing at Montclair University. He holds a Ph.D. in Marketing from Rutgers University and an M.S. in Information Systems from Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Kim’s research provides insight into how people decide to try things under uncertainty, such as buying items online or interacting with humanoids. His research has been published in IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, Communications of the ACM, and IEEE Engineering Management Review. His research assists international organisations, such as the World Bank and the European Union, in better understanding consumer behaviour.