Mental Mettle and Musings: to conform or to conform?

by Arhana Aatresh (’23) | March 21, 2022

Art by Ava Hennen (’22)

Teenagers get a bad reputation for their obsession with social status and group belonging, as well as their impulsive and temperamental tendencies; just look at every teen drama and movie! However, they should not be faulted for their brains that are literally wired differently from those of adults. During adolescence, the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain in the frontal lobe that is in charge of planning, decision-making, and social behavior, continually loses gray matter and useless synapses in a process aptly named “synaptic pruning.” The existing neural pathways are also coated with a fatty sheath called myelin in “myelination,” another aptly-named process, which increases the efficiency of neural messages. This change is partly responsible for the drastic differences between teenage social behavior and child or adult behavior. The teenage brain’s obsession with how others perceive things also manifests as increased self-consciousness. “How are they thinking of me? Do I fit in?” Adolescents become increasingly dependent on a part of the brain that processes others’ mental state and controls mimicry.

While there are many theories regarding this transition from a child’s insouciance to a teenager’s hyper-scrutiny, it is nevertheless a natural developmental stage of life. In addition to their desire for belonging, teenagers make increasingly important decisions affecting their day-to-day life as they near adulthood. These decisions are highly dependent on continually processing new information while observing others’ choices, due to an intense craving for social conformity. The influence of new information and these social observations are both powerful, but are they distinct? 

Dr. Bahador Bahrami from the Loyola Marymount University Department of Psychology explained, “This question is all the more relevant in today’s world of social media and the manipulation of opinions, as many people rely on the opinions of others to form their own view.” 

A new study led by Ali Mahmoodi at the University of Freiburg in Germany sought to differentiate changing one’s mind due to new information, called informative social influence, from changing one’s mind due to social pressure, called normative social influence. The study used a computer game and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain to investigate any differences. Participants were first instructed to remember the position of a dot on the screen and rate their confidence in their own responses. Then, to test social influence, they were allowed to change their guesses after seeing the response of a “partner” or the computer (both were just computerized answers). Using fMRI, which has a high spatial resolution, the researchers tracked and analyzed the brain activity of the participants while they completed the task, allowing for more detail. 

The experiment found that participants with low confidence were more likely to revise their answers, regardless of if they thought the other answer they saw was human or not. Participants also conformed more when their “partner” appeared to conform too, signifying another informative influence. When the participants thought their “partner” was human, activity in the dorsal angular cingulate cortex (dACC) of the brain and connections to the dACC from other brain regions increased, marking normative influence. The researchers concluded that there is indeed a difference between the neural activity associated with informative and normative influence.

Our brain weighs others’ opinions in social interactions. As teenagers, we are constantly receiving new information, whether it be through experience, social media, school, or the news, and thus constantly revising our paradigms about the world. We are also under pressure to conform, which our brain physically perceives as a unique type of influence. As we continue to make decisions that affect our future, we need to be conscious of why we change our minds. Especially in the era of aesthetic Instagram infographics that aim to spread awareness but often simplify global issues, we must be aware of how we source our information and why we may quickly agree with our friends, because these informative and normative influences can blend dangerously together. When we revise opinions, we should pause to consider our motivations. Did I change my mind because I want to avoid conflict with this group or because I received new information that I first evaluated and understood?

Categories: Column, Science

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