Think back about a situation, where you found it difficult to express your opinion. It might have been a meeting at work, where you have planned to present a great idea. But as soon as it started, the discussion went in a different direction. Your coworkers brought up arguments that made you doubt your own idea. Eventually, you decided to not communicate it any more – your idea wasn’t that good anyways. Does that sound familiar to you? Well, you are not alone in this. Although being outspoken seems to be a desirable characteristic in a fast-paced, extroverted world, a lot of people continuously decide to keep their opinions and ideas to themselves. Doubts might be one reason for doing that. Another motive could be the desire to be liked. A mediocre or even bad idea might cause other people to question your intelligence, which might make you less interesting or attractive to them.
Conforming to the standpoint of others in order to be liked is an example of normative social influence. It can also occur in a discussion about politics, where you find yourself speaking out against your preferred political party, simply because the other people oppose it. This phenomenon is long known in psychology and one of the first psychologists doing research about social conformity and normative social influence was Solomon Asch.
People conform to judgments that are obviously wrong
In the 1950s, Asch invited volunteers to participate in a psychological experiment supposedly contributing to research in visual judgment. Upon arrival at Asch’s office, the volunteers were seated in a classroom along with six to eight other people. Every person was shown the same two cards and they were asked to determine which lines on the cards were alike. Out of four lines, there were two lines clearly alike, while the length of the other two lines differed substantially, making the answer unambiguous. In fact, a child would have no problems to solve this task. But Asch was not interested in solely figuring out whether or not the volunteers were able to detect the correct lines. He was far more concerned with the impact of group pressure on individual decision-making. Thus, the other people in the classroom were not volunteers, but actors prepared to give a wrong answer. And these actors gave their answers before the volunteer could make a guess.
In the first couple of rounds, the task seemed to be straightforward. The cards were shown, all the other people in the room chose the right lines and the volunteers had no problems to identify the lines that were alike. This changed however, when all of a sudden the other people unanimously chose lines with differing lengths. Confronted with other people confidently giving the same wrong answer, 75 percent of the volunteers followed this obviously wrong consensus at least once. This experiment was the first one to show that social influence makes people conform to wrong judgments. What remained unclear though was how social influence makes people conform to these judgments. Maybe, the volunteers consciously decided to respond incorrectly, but another possible explanation could be an actual change in perception – they gave wrong answers they actually perceived to be true.
More than 50 years after Asch’s conformity experiment, technological advances allowed scientists to have a closer look at the how of social conformity. In so-called fMRI scanners, researchers are able to monitor the activity of different regions in the working brain. Whether social conformity is a conscious decision or caused by a change in perception can be determined by looking at the activity of associated brain regions.
Scientific evidence suggests that peer pressure actually affects your perception
In 2005, a group of neuroscientists conducted an experiment, where people had to say whether or not two images showed the same three-dimensional object. To make it slightly more complex, the objects were presented from different angles. Thus, the participants had to mentally rotate them in order to figure out the correct answer. In the fMRI scanner, the participants sometimes saw the answers apparently given by other participants. And something remarkable struck the researchers. When the volunteers conformed to the wrong responses given by the other participants, they showed activity in the visual cortex – a region in the back of the brain responsible for perception. Even more striking, the researchers could not detect any activity in the frontal region of the brain associated with higher-order mental processes like decision-making and conflict. This suggests that the participants did not consciously decide to respond incorrectly, but rather that a change in perception has caused them to do so.
Social conformity can have undesirable outcomes
These two experiments have vast implications. It shows that people do not solely conform to social norms because they make a conscious decision to do so. Instead, their perception changes due to peer pressure. If taken to a political context, people might begin to truly believe in a questionable political ideology when confronted with peer pressure. A thoroughly racist and authoritarian ideology could then become an accepted or even appreciated set of doctrines enabled by a “principle of majority rule”. And the results of the experiments might even allow to go one step further and to question the existence of truth. To come back to the meeting at the beginning of this article, it might have been true that your idea was indeed not that good. But it is also likely that the arguments of your coworkers have tricked you into believing that your idea is bad, although it truly might have been a great idea. In the next meeting it might thus be better, to simply communicate what is in your head.
Authors: Solomon E. Asch
Title: Opinions and Social Pressure
Journal: Scientific American
Authors: Gregory S. Berns and colleagues
Title: Neurobiological Correlates of Social Conformity and Independence During Mental Rotation
Journal: Biological Psychiatry