Fitting In: The Neuroscience of Conformity

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.

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, 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.”

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