Are you a rebel or a conformist? A new research study attempts to discover an answer as to why some prefer to rebel against social influences while others tend to accept and conform to societal pressures.
Although differences in individuals’ tendencies to conform to social pressures are commonly observed, no anatomical measure has previously been linked to the likelihood of someone conforming under the influence of their peers.
In the study, researchers used neuroimaging technology to ascertain if individuals’ decisions are hard wired — that is, associated with anatomical differences in key brain structures. Investigators discovered a link between the amount of grey matter in one specific brain region and an individual’s likelihood of conforming to social pressures.
The findings are reported in the journal Current Biology.
Investigators first measured the brain volumes in 28 participants. Then, to measure how participants responded to social influence, they were tested to see how their preferences for certain pieces of music changed after being told what authoritative “music critics” thought about them.
A week prior to testing, each participant listed 20 songs they liked but didn’t personally own. On the day of the test, the participants rated their choices out of 10.
Next, the researchers stated that music critics with expert opinions had listened to the participants’ choices and had also rated these songs out of 10.
The participants then performed a task comparing their choices with unknown music. Following the task, the participants rerated their 20 choices, and the degree to which their opinions differed in light of hearing the critics’ ratings served as a measure of conformity under social influence.
Investigators discovered only grey matter volume in one precise brain region — the lateral orbitofrontal cortex — was associated with this measure of social influence.
The linear relationship between grey matter volume and the tendency of individuals to conform was observed in this particular region in both hemispheres of the brain.
In a previous study, the researchers had looked at the level of activity in the participants’ brains when faced with disagreement with the experts. This activity predicted how much influence the experts would have.
By comparing the measures in this new study with the previous findings, they were able to show that grey matter volume in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex also predicted how individuals responded when the critics disagreed with their opinions.
These findings suggest that the brain region is particularly tuned to recognizing cues of social conflict, such as when someone disapproves of a choice, which may prompt the subject to update their opinions accordingly.
Said study leader Dr. Chris Frith, “The ability to adapt to others and align ourselves with them is an important social skill. However, at what level is this skill implemented in the brain? At a software (information processing) or hardware (structural) level? Our results show that social conformation is, at least in part, hard-wired in the structure of the brain.”
Dr Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, first author of the study, explains the implications of their findings: “This opens a new chapter on the social consequences of brain atrophy and brain development. People with damage to this region often display changes of personality and social interaction.
“This finding suggests that perhaps we should look at how these individuals learn what is important from the expressed preferences of others.”
Source: Wellcome Trust