By Maia Szalavitz
Nov. 04, 2010
You may remember the experiment from Psych 101: the one in which people are compelled to doubt their own good judgment and give wrong answers to simple questions, just to go along with the rest of the group. Now, brain research reviewed by the Dana Foundation offers more insight into why people conform: the feeling of fitting in activates brain regions that spur pleasure.
One study published this summer by researchers Chris Frith and Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn found that people’s reward regions lit up strongly when their ratings of pop songs agreed with those of two “experts.” From the Dana Foundation:
This could explain that small but extremely satisfactory sensation you feel when proven right — this, after all, is basically realizing that what you thought conforms with reality or at least with the expert view you most believe does so, anyway. (More on Time.com: Special Report: Kids and MentalHealth)
The idea that conforming would bring pleasure makes evolutionary sense for a social species. After all, it probably doesn’t often promote survival to stand out from others in a small, tight-knit group on which you depend to meet all your fundamental needs.
Obviously, there are times that bucking convention is necessary and beneficial. But determining what allows some individuals to overcome the discomfort of standing out — or even prefer being the rebel or the outsider — is much more challenging for psychologists. (More on Time.com: Why SpammingYour Friends With Cute Kitties Is Good Karma)
Frith and Campbell-Meiklejohn’s work shows the biological underpinnings of a long-studied phenomenon: yielding to peer pressure gets you high, even when you aren’t saying yes to drugs.
To get a sense of the power of peers, see the video, below, on the famous Asch conformity experiments from the 1950s: