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Exactly 300 years ago, in 1721, Benjamin Franklin and his fellow American colonists faced a deadly smallpox outbreak.

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The science of ‘herd mentality’

Why your brain wants you to follow the crowd.

  • What can monkeys teach us about stock market bubbles? It turns out that monkeys make decisions much like investors on the trading floor—they develop a herd mentality, mimicking the behavior of others until overinflation and the eventual pop.
  • "This tendency to follow the herd emerges from our social brain networks," explains Michael Platt, professor of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. This network allows us to learn and adapt based on information from those around us. But these learnings are not always positive.
  • In the context of money and the stock market, following the herd could result in bad financial decisions. The key, Platt says, is learning to take a step back and resist impulses, which in some ways goes against our evolution and the way our brains work. "There's a trade off between speed and accuracy in decision-making," he says. "If we could slow people down, that would allow more evidence to accumulate, and they're more likely to make a better decision."

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Ready to tackle MIT's recommended reading list for summer 2021?

All the latest titles from the experts at MIT.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash
As we enter the heart of summer, many of us will find ourselves with added time for relaxation and deep reading.
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The most important boring idea in the universe

We live in a world dominated by science, but most people don't understand its most essential characteristic: establishing standards of evidence to keep us from getting fooled by our own biases and opinions.

Credit: David Matos via Unsplash
  • Maintaining standards of evidence is the most important and least appreciated idea in science.
  • Modern science was established in the late Renaissance when networks of researchers began working out best practices for linking evidence with conclusions.
  • In the face of science denial and attempts to create a post-truth society, we have to protect the primacy of standards of evidence in science and society.
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Why do big creatures live longer?

Humans could, in theory, one day use scaling laws to extend our lifespans.

  • Scientists have observed that in nature, all things scale with size in a way that is mathematically predictable.
  • Similar scaling laws hold for things like growth and lifespan. As theoretical physicist Geoffrey West explains, larger mammals generally live longer because of the inverse relationship between body size and the rate at which cells are damaged.
  • By having this theory of scaling laws, "you can determine what the parameters are, the knobs that you could conceivably turn to change that lifespan," says West. Instead of living to be 100 years old, humans could someday hack our cells to last for two centuries.


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