We human beings seem to really take after things when someone else likes them too.

In a schoolyard, a playground, or in your own living room, kids will often chase after the same toy. This is despite many other (seemingly equally attractive) toys being on offer right beside the one being contested.

Of course kids aren’t the only ones who get the same goal in mind when they see others take an interest in something. Seriously, what was up with the “Tickle Me Elmo” craze in the late 1990s? Or the “Furbys” from a few years ago?

What is it that makes something a hot item? It turns out that it’s maybe not the item itself so much as it is what others think of it. This comes from Mael Lebreton and colleagues in Paris, France who recently published a study in the Journal of Neuroscience that addressed this.

They used objects like food, toys, clothing and tools and put them in pairs that people could choose between. The only difference between the pairs was the color of the object. Participants aged 20 to 39 years old watched videos of other people reaching out and choosing one of the objects.

In different parts of the study, participants were then asked how much they liked, would like to use, or would like to acquire each object. During some experiments functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to determine brain activity during responses.

The results showed a clear link between watching someone else take an action to choose an object and the overall desirability of the object. In other words, when you see someone else reach out for something, you want it too. This result was similar regardless of the type or color of the object and was equivalent for men and women.

Overall the imaging studies show an interactive link between the mirror neuron system (those neurons in the parietal lobes and the motor cortex that are active when we both do an action or view the actions of others) and our motivational system (sometimes called the brain valuation system). This could hint at the way observing actions of others can help impress values across people.

Like all such research, it isn’t yet clear how far this concept extends to real behaviors and real choices. But it is tempting to speculate that these “subliminal” valuations and decisions are ongoing in many things we do and see daily.

Like in advertising.

Or maybe even in great works of literature. Like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer written by Mark Twain.

I wonder if Twain had this in mind when he wrote about Tom Sawyer getting his friends to paint that picket fence for him? Tom makes it seem so desirable that he even gets them to pay him for the privilege of painting Aunt Polly’s fence.

Mark Twain may not have had access to functional neuroimaging back in 1876 (although that would be a cool steampunk story), but he sure did understand human nature.

© E. Paul Zehr (2012)

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