Are we unique? Not according to behavioural science!

We may all think ourselves as unique, but according to a new study our broad behavioural traits are not.. A team of social scientists and mathematicians have shown that 90% of the population fit into 4 behavioural phenotypes.

541 subjects of different ages, educational level, and social status were used. They exposed these participants to a varied combination of 4 simple dyadic games based around cooperation and risk-assessed choices. To incentivize the experimental subjects’ decisions real material (economic) consequence.

Studying the choices made, that promoted either cooperation and defection, and using a wide research literature base, they classified participants into broad behavioural categories. Through this they identified the general behavioral rules that dictated individuals’ actions

(c) Psychology Today

A clustering algorithm was used to analyse the behavioural data. It was found that all participants, with a broad certainty, fit into a limited amount of behavioural phenotypes. Further analysis whittled this down to four phenotypes that 88% of the population would fit into:

  • Pessimist (21%): aims to ensure a best worst-case scenario,  associated with different degrees of risk aversion
  • Optimist (20%): aims to obtain the maximum payoff without taking into account the likelihood that their counterpart will allow them to get it
  • Trustful (17%) : trusts in partners behaving in a cooperative manner
  • Envious (30%):  driven by envy, status-seeking consideration, or lack of trust with competitiveness overcomes rationality

The remaining 12% fall into the “undefined category”.

(c) Osiris Educational

The researchers comment that this 4 category system, whilst largely working for adults, would not be ideal for analysing child behaviour. This is due to the fact that children generally lack the self-awareness and social understanding to act in their best interest or adjust behaviour accordingly to needs and restrictions.

Understanding social behaviour is deemed important, not only on a scientific stance, but also for ensuring more efficient political and economic policy-making and establishing a better understanding real life economic interactions.


Reference: Poncela-Casasnovas, J. Gutierrez-Roig, M. Gracia-Lazaro, C. Vicens, J. Gomez-Gardenes, J. Perello, J. Moreno, Y. Duch, J. Sanchez, A. (2016) “Humans display a reduced set of consistent behavioral phenotypes in dyadic games” Science Advances.2 (8): August 5th.

Find the full paper here:

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Lillian Stanton

I am a student in science and media communications. I am particularly fascinated by biological sciences, robotics and behavioural psychology.

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