Wired to Conform?

Jason Zweig wrote an excellent book called “Your Money & Your Brain,” which I have written about repeatedly, because it is so dang good (!). While it is focused around people’s behavior around money, it’s also an excellent study of the odd behaviors we humans can exhibit because of how our brains are wired.

Specifically, the book discusses the reflexive emotions that are built into us, things like fear, greed, and regret. The book is full of great examples of people acting in strange, irrational, or plain stupid ways, the result of these automatic emotional reflexes.

For example, in the section on fear, Zweig cites a study where participants were asked which objects were the same or different. Some participants chose by themselves, that is, without feedback from or interaction with others. Others were in a room with others who also chose. The others in the room were actually planted by the researchers to guess the wrong answer (!). Zweig writes, “When people made their own choices, they were right 84% of the time […] But when the peer group all made the wrong choice, the individuals being tested chose correctly just 59% of the time” ( 167).

What gives? Were the participants in the room with others suddenly dumber after seeing them guess wrong (though secretly on purpose)? Zweig goes on:

Brain scans showed that when people followed along with the peer group, activation in parts of their frontal cortex decreased, as if social pressure was somehow overpowering the reflective brain.

When people did take an independent view and guessed against the consensus of their peers, brain scans found intense firing in the amygdala […] Neuroeconomist Gregory Berns, who led the study, calls this flare-up in the amygdala a sign of “the emotional load associated with standing up for one’s belief.” Social isolation activates some of the same areas in the brain that are triggered by physical pain. In short, you go along with the herd not because you consciously choose to do so, but because it hurts not to.

Your Money & Your Brain, 167


In other words, apparently we are wired to conform and seek validation from others. If we don’t, we are inclined to feel pain!

I have certainly dealt with my share of this. Even in writing this blog, for instance, sometimes my head yells at me:

<Damn, you look like an idiot, writing a post everyday that hardly anyone comments on! What an indulgence! This is so stupid>*

Obviously, I don’t let this little bit of insecurity stop me from writing. In fact, it’s been a good practice in letting go of the need for approval. Yet that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt a bit.

But I guess I need not worry about this.

Apparently, it’s wired in 🙂

*This does not discount the people who do read my blog and are supportive. You know who you are (Mom) !

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