Too Long for a Tweet, Too Short for a Blog Post XXXIV
Here's an excerpt from a book I'm reading, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," by Susan Cain:
But Berns’s study also shed light on exactly why we’re such conformists. When the volunteers played alone, the brain scans showed activity in a network of brain regions including the occipital cortex and parietal cortex, which are associated with visual and spatial perception, and in the frontal cortex, which is associated with conscious decision-making. But when they went along with their group’s wrong answer, their brain activity revealed something very different.
Remember, what Asch wanted to know was whether people conformed despite knowing that the group was wrong, or whether their perceptions had been altered by the group. If the former was true, Berns and his team reasoned, then they should see more brain activity in the decision-making prefrontal cortex. That is, the brain scans would pick up the volunteers deciding consciously to abandon their own beliefs to fit in with the group. But if the brain scans showed heightened activity in regions associated with visual and spatial perception, this would suggest that the group had somehow managed to change the individual’s perceptions.
That was exactly what happened—the conformists showed less brain activity in the frontal, decision-making regions and more in the areas of the brain associated with perception. Peer pressure, in other words, is not only unpleasant, but can actually change your view of a problem.
These early findings suggest that groups are like mind-altering substances. If the group thinks the answer is A, you’re much more likely to believe that A is correct, too. It’s not that you’re saying consciously, “Hmm, I’m not sure, but they all think the answer’s A, so I’ll go with that.” Nor are you saying, “I want them to like me, so I’ll just pretend that the answer’s A.” No, you are doing something much more unexpected—and dangerous. Most of Berns’s volunteers reported having gone along with the group because “they thought that they had arrived serendipitously at the same correct answer.” They were utterly blind, in other words, to how much their peers had influenced them.
What does this have to do with social fear? Well, remember that the volunteers in the Asch and Berns studies didn’t always conform. Sometimes they picked the right answer despite their peers’ influence. And Berns and his team found something very interesting about these moments. They were linked to heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with upsetting emotions such as the fear of rejection.
Berns refers to this as “the pain of independence,” and it has serious implications. Many of our most important civic institutions, from elections to jury trials to the very idea of majority rule, depend on dissenting voices. But when the group is literally capable of changing our perceptions, and when to stand alone is to activate primitive, powerful, and unconscious feelings of rejection, then the health of these institutions seems far more vulnerable than we think.