Fitting In: The Neuroscience of Conformity

(Editor’s note: This article from the Winter 2017 issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


Elections rely on all of us behaving like sheep. At some stage, we will follow the shepherd we believe most likely to lead us to a greener pasture. Once our decision is made, we become docile and unquestioning even in the face of inconsistencies and lies. Our shepherd, we tell ourselves, is the better shepherd. Once given the chance to prove themselves, their flaws will disappear.

Others may be sheep, you reflect, but not me. My vision is clear.

Good luck with that delusion.

Scientists have been studying conformity since 1932, when Canadian anthropologist Diamond Jenness first began exploring the phenomenon. By 1951, psychologist Solomon Asch tested male college students and found that one-third of his sample would select an obviously wrong answer if their peers (who had been primed to give the wrong answer) selected it as well. Asch suggested that people conform because they want to fit in with a group. It’s either because they want to be liked, or because they believe the rest of the group is more knowledgeable than they themselves are.

A 2007 study on conformity, by researchers at Princeton and Stanford universities, found that there is one place where instances of mindless conformity are difficult to see — in ourselves. The researchers predicted that when it comes to detecting the impact of social influence, people will see themselves as “alone in a crowd of sheep.” It might give pause, too, that the only animal alone in a crowd of sheep is either the sheepdog or the Judas goat, both of which lead the sheep to slaughter. And then there is the black sheep, the maverick, the oft-castigated pariah.

For generations, brainwashers, propagandists, advertisers, novelists, and playwrights have in some way relied on our willingness to be duped, letting the wool be pulled over our eyes. How this happens is the challenge of a new and fascinating branch of neuroscience.

Children are born with free spirits. The fresh, unusual ways in which they see the world are part of what we love most about them, but we rapidly train them to conform, “Don’t say that lady is fat!” After their independent twos, when they are more likely to whack another child with a toy than play with them, they rapidly become social and do what they can to be accepted by the group, or at the very least, by one child they enjoy playing with. They start taking cues about what the group likes best. Girls may want the latest Barbie for their birthdays while boys may prefer Lego construction sets.

Behavioral science and psychology have long studied this aspect of human behavior, but functional MRI reveals that those who express opinions contrary to their peers — and get frowned upon — experience a neuronal response in the brain’s rostral cingulate zone and nucleus accumbens. These areas help monitor behavioral outcomes. They anticipate and process rewards. According to a study published in Neuron earlier this year, our brains may intuit — letting us know when we’ve contradicted the flock — and lead us to adjust our opinions to conform.

Study author Vasily Klucharev, of the F.C. Donders Center for Cognitive Neuroimaging in the Netherlands, said: “Our results show that social conformity is based on mechanisms that comply with reinforcement learning. Neural error-monitoring activity signals the most fundamental social mistake — that of being too different from others.”

A recent University of California, Los Angeles, study conducted by the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center reinforced this. The study scanned youth brains, with participants aged 13 to 18, while the youngsters were using social media. “When the teens saw their own photos with a large number of likes, we saw activity across a wide variety of regions in the brain,” according to lead author Lauren Sherman, a researcher in the brain-mapping center and the UCLA branch of the Children’s Digital Media Center in Los Angeles. A region that was especially active during the scans was the nucleus accumbens, a part of the striatum, which is a particularly sensitive part of the brain’s reward circuitry during the adolescent years. Researchers also observed activation in regions that are known as the “social brain” and regions linked to visual attention.

While we may not be surprised that their brain (and ego) lit up with high numbers of likes, the test subjects were also more likely to approve of a post that had a high number of other “likes” than one with less likes.

“In the teenagers’ real lives, the influence of their friends is likely to be even more dramatic,” said Mirella Dapretto, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. This isn’t always as innocuous as it may first seem. Dapretto warned that this desire to conform may open up the possibility of a child being more influenced by people who engage in risk-taking behavior. When teenagers looked at photographs of high-risk behaviors like excessive drinking, compared with more neutral photos of a vacation, they showed less activation in areas associated with “cognitive control” and “response inhibition,” including the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, bilateral prefrontal cortices, and lateral parietal cortices — parts of the brain that inhibit self-destructive conduct.

A 2012 study published in Current Biology, using 28 participants in a conformity study, demonstrated similar findings. Researchers mapped participants’ ratings of music, and the subjects were then shown what authoritative music critics had thought of that same music. Again using fMRI, investigators discovered that the lateral orbitofrontal cortex became active, as most participants switched or corrected their selections to conform with the critics’ ratings. Study leader Dr. Chris Frith said, “The ability to adapt to others and align ourselves with them is an important social skill [and] social conformation is, at least in part, hardwired in the structure of the brain.”

Brain-imaging research conducted by Australia’s Monash Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, reveals that some people experience mental distress when they contradict their peers, and so, to avoid this conflict, they agree to be agreeable. Researchers Pascal Molenberghs, Juan Dominguez, and Sreyneth Taing found that compliant individuals showed intense activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and anterior insula — areas that scientists already know highlight mental stress.

Dr. Dominguez says agreeability is known as the truth bias, which is helpful in forming and maintaining social relationships, even though it may not be honest. He and his colleagues said this desire to please may lead to poor decision-making, anxiety, or interpersonal relationship problems. They suggest a better understanding of the brain mechanisms of disagreement could assist in the creation of mechanisms to help “pleasers” assert their independence.


In truth, even the nonconformists among us have done it: gone against our better instincts or personal knowledge because we thought the other person probably understands an issue better than us. Or, for the sake of peace, we’ve said, “Yes, dear.”

(Editor’s note: This article from the Winter 2017 issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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