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How Your Brain May Trick You Into Conforming With Peers Against Your Beliefs

illustration of woman on the outside of a group

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Key Takeaways

  • Social influence often plays into how people create opinions and make decisions.
  • Researchers analyzed the brain activity of people evaluating the trustworthiness of faces.
  • People tend to conform to the opinion of those they trust most and who are like them.

Everyone has opinions. How those opinions are influenced by others has intrigued researches for decades.

“Social influence is a powerful phenomenon. It's sometimes casually called peer pressure, herd mentality or groupthink,” Deborah Serani, PsyD, psychologist and professor at Adelphi University, tells Verywell.

Serani says the outcome of social influence often leads to individuals abandoning their own unique thoughts to align themselves with others.

Researchers in Russia recently analyzed brain activity that occurs when a person agrees and disagrees with a peer group.

“Usually, scientists paid attention to the neural processes during the conflict, focusing on the negative feedback processing in different types of tasks (e.g., social disapproval or monetary losses), and similarities in the patterns of neural activity,” Aleksei Gorin, junior research fellow at HSE University in Moscow, tells Verywell.

During his team’s research, Gorin says they looked at the follow-up processing of the conflict-related stimuli by using magnetoencephalographic (MEG) source imaging to investigate the long-term effects of agreement and disagreement with a peer group.

Deborah Serani, PsyD

Social influence is a powerful phenomenon. It's sometimes casually called peer pressure, herd mentality or groupthink.

— Deborah Serani, PsyD

MEG is a non-invasive technique that measures ongoing brain activity on a
millisecond-by-millisecond basis, and it shows where in the brain activity is
produced.

The study was held in two sessions. During the first session, participants rated the
trustworthiness of faces. After they rated the faces, they learned how the rest
of the group rated each face.

In the first session, a neural marker of an immediate mismatch between individual and group opinions was found in the posterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain involved in conflict-monitoring and reinforcement learning.

After a 30-minute break, the second session began. The same participants rated faces again with no group feedback, while the researchers analyzed MEG activity to investigate the long-term effects of earlier disagreement with peers’ opinions on the neural processing of faces.

During the second session, participants did the following:

  • Adjusted their initial rating to be in line with the group rating in 46% of trials.
  • Repeated their initial rating in 28% of trials.
  • Changed their initial rating in the opposite direction relative to the group rating in 26% of the trials.

“The interesting point is that the neural patterns of conflict processing and follow-up
perception were alike—both spatially and temporally. Metaphorically, we may
observe a kind of a shadow of the previously experienced conflict during the
task," says Gorin. "We also observed a higher activity in the brain regions that participate in the stimulus-outcome association, which also fits the general idea of
processing the disagreement with a group as an error."

Aleksei Gorin

We also observed a higher activity in the brain regions that participate in the stimulus-outcome association, which also fits the general idea of processing the disagreement with a group as an error

— Aleksei Gorin

In conclusion, he says the study indicates that disagreements with majority opinion induce changes in the processing of faces.

Why Does the Trustworthiness of Faces Matter?

People tend to conform to the opinion of those they trust most and who are like them.

For example, Gorin points to a study in which adolescents rated t-shirts, then were exposed to the group score (in one case, a group of peers, in the other case, a group of prisoners).

“As could be expected, they showed a tendency to conform their rating with the peers’ rating and avoid the prisoners’ scores,” says Gorin.

However, the pull to behave this way can lead to mistakes.

“Therefore, you may clearly see how the elder people who grew up in a separated society could mistrust a doctor who speaks with a slight accent or looks like he has relatives abroad,” says Gorin.

Simply distrusting the doctor in this instance because he is different from the elders, is irrational, he adds. “[Any] anthropologist would say that this behavior has an old foundation under it, but now the world has changed, but not the brain,” Gorin says.

How to Minimize Social Influence

While it might be innate to agree with your peer group, here are ways to stick to
your opinions
and make your own decisions despite social influence.

Plan for Social Influence

Think about and understand how social influence works.

“By becoming familiar with different kinds of group dynamics, you can be prepared
for the twists and turns groups take on when decisions are made,” says Serani.

Practice Saying “No”

Take time to learn how to disagree, say no, or oppose decisions in a constructive and positive way.

“Using language that is non-threatening, positive and descriptive can help your message be heard,” Serani says.

Encourage Diversity of Thought

If saying “no” or disagreeing with a group feels overwhelming, recognize the possibility that others may feel similarly to you.

“Encourage others to share their own unique thoughts. This will widen diverse and creative thinking from others,” says Serani.

Recognize the Power of the Majority

Same-thinking in a group offers a sense of connection and power, explains Serani.

“When more people agree with an idea, the idea and the group itself exponentially increases in power. Knowing this ahead of time can help you feel less vulnerable should you defy or disagree with a popular decision,” she says.

Embrace Being the Lone Dissenter

Disagreeing does not have to lower your status or value. Instead, Serani says, “embrace that your idea is unique and offers alternative possibilities.”

What This Means For You

Research shows that people are influenced by the opinions of others in their peer group. However, there are ways to stay true to your opinions and fend off the urge to conform to the majority.

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Article Sources
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  1. Gorin, A., Klucharev, V., Ossadtchi, A. et al. MEG signatures of
    long-term effects of agreement and disagreement with the majority
    . Sci Rep 11, 3297 (2021). doi:10.1038/s41598-021-82670-x

  2. Izuma K, Adolphs R. Social manipulation of preference in the human brainNeuron. 2013;78(3):563-573. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2013.03.023