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Are you a conformist? Blame it on your brain

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Conforming to social pressure is hard-wired in the brain, finds study

If you've ever wondered why some people are non-conformists, researchers now have an answer that lies within the brain. Conforming to social pressures seems to be dictated by the amount of gray matter in a specific area of a person's brain.

The study is believed to be the first to find in anatomical reason for conforming to the beliefs of one's peers.

For the new study that appears in the journal Current Biology, researchers tested study participants who were asked to listen to music and then rate it on a scale of 1 to 10. Next they were told what music critics thought in an effort to see if the study participant’s opinion would change.

One week before they were tested the group listed 20 songs that they liked. They were told that expert music critics that also listened to their choices and rated the music. The participants were also asked to listen to music they hadn’t heard before and rate it.

After being told what the critics thought of the music, the researchers compared how much the participant’s opinions changed, to see how socially influenced they were.

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The study included 28 participants who underwent Voxel based morphometry, a type of imaging powered by MRI that measures gray matter volume in the brain.

The finding showed greater volume in one particular area of grey matter in the brain – the lateral orbitofrontal cortex that plays a role in emotion and reward – determined a person’s likelihood of conforming to the opinions of others.

Study leader Professor Chris Frith says: "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."

The researchers believe their finding could have implications for helping patients with brain diseases. Dr Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, first author of the study the results show there are social consequences associated with brain atrophy and brain development. “This finding suggests that perhaps we should look at how these individuals learn what is important from the expressed preferences of others."

Brain atrophy or shrinkage is associated with a loss of social skills and is seen in people who develop dementia. When it comes to making choices, being a conformist seems to depend on how much gray matter is in your brain, based on the study finding.

Current Biology: doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.01.012
"Structure of orbitofrontal cortex predicts social influence"
Daniel K. Campbell-Meiklejohn, et al.
February 21, 2012

Image credit: Wikimedia commons