Knowing when to assert your individuality and when to set it aside is an important social skill. We usually want to blend in with the wallpaper, so to speak, when we’re not quite sure how to behave or don’t feel like making our presence known because we're ill, sleepy, or bored. Unfortunately, it becomes very easy to go along with the group once you’re in conformity mode. New research led by Chinese Academy of Sciences psychologist Haiyan Wu and colleagues (2016) provides some indirect guidance on this topic by showing just how programmed we are to conform—meaning that we need to work that much harder to stand out.
According to Wu and her fellow researchers, the reward centers in the brain become activated when we’re influenced by others to conform, and these changes lead to permanent alterations in the areas of the brain involved in memory. The authors state, “These findings suggest a possibility that people internalize judgments and preferences of other people; and therefore, are thought to support the account of private acceptance” (p. 102). Try as you might to resist social pressures, it seems that once exposed to them, they become so integrated into your own memories that you forget having held disparate opinions. Your brain also starts screaming, metaphorically, when you disagree with group norms. It feels better to go along with the group than it does to express your contradictory views.
After reviewing 68 studies, which the authors narrowed down to 18 that met their inclusion criteria, the team concluded that “social conformity is driven” by brain regions that lead to negative feelings when deviating from the group which “not only influence people’s overt behaviors but also result in altered neural correlates of valuation” of the original opinion we disagreed with (p. 109). If they like it, in other words, you will like it too.
In a related vein, a study led by Carnegie Mellon’s Jeff Galak and associates (2016) showed that when women relocate from a lower to a higher status region, they change the height of the heels they prefer to wear to match those of women living in the new location. So, if a woman moves from Mobile, Alabama (a lower-status location) to New York City (higher in status), there is an 86 percent chance that she will ditch the flats for heels. On average, as reported in the Galak et al. paper, half the women moving from a low-status to high-status location will go from a one-inch to a three-inch heel. We don’t always conform, as the Galak study shows, but we will if we perceive a group to have higher value than the one from which we came.
Now that we know how strong the urge to conform can be, right down to the height of our heels, let’s look at how you can turn down the signals in your brain when you want to make your influence felt:
Going along with the crowd may be mentally reassuring, but it can be even more fulfilling to follow your own unique desires and modes of expression. As long as you do so carefully and consciously, it’s even possible you’ll motivate others to value their own individuality.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Galak, J., Gray, K., Elbert, I., & Strohminger, N. (2016). Trickle-Down Preferences: Preferential Conformity to High Status Peers in Fashion Choices. Plos ONE, 11(5), 1-11. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0153448
Wu, H., Luo, Y., & Feng, C. (2016). Neural signatures of social conformity: A coordinate-based activation likelihood estimation meta-analysis of functional brain imaging studies. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 71101-111. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.08.038