When we disagree with our group, our brains make note of it to change our opinion later.
Why is it so difficult for the person who thinks differently to make headway in most organizations? And why does an entire generation suddenly believe things that are very different from people 10 years older, and take those beliefs as obvious? The answer lies in the brain.
A new study from HSE University in Russia finds that when we have a different opinion from the majority, our brains make a special note of it. Why? The brain leaves a ‘trace’ when there is disagreement so it can later change our opinion to align with our social group. In other words, our brains actively track our group’s opinion and then make sure we fall in line.
And that explains a lot. Anyone who has ever been an adolescent knows how hard it can be to go against the crowd. We spend years of our formative development striving to fit in, to conform to our group. As we get older we may sometimes celebrate the independent thinker, but it still takes a lot of energy to go against group opinion.
From fashion fads to political trends to our ability to get along with the people we live with, our brains are set up to make sure we fit in. “Our study shows the dramatic influence of others’s opinion on how we perceive information,” says study author Vasily Klucharev, in a press release. “We live in social groups and automatically adjust our opinions to that of the majority, and the opinion of our peers can change the way our brain processes information for a relatively long time.”
In the first study to look at how group opinion alters our own opinion processing in the long term, the researchers used magnetoencephalography (MEG) imaging to follow brain activity. Then, the study team had study participants go through two sessions.
In the first session, the participants were shown a series of faces and asked to rate them on how trustworthy they appeared. Next they were told how the group had rated each face for trustworthiness. The MEG imaging showed an immediate change in the posterior cingulate cortex whenever the participant’s rating was a mismatch with the group. And that’s interesting because the posterior cingulate cortex is an area of the brain that monitors conflict and reinforces learning.
Next, the researchers tried to understand the impact of group opinion after a time lapse by running a second session. Participants rated the faces again while the researchers monitored their MEG activity. This time, after looking at the face for 230 milliseconds, the participants’ MEG showed traces of whether they had disagreed or agreed with their peers the last time.
If participants had disagreed with their peers, the MEG showed significantly stronger activity in three brain areas: the superior parietal lobule, the intraparietal sulcus, and the precuneous. Next, again in those who had disagreed, at the orbitofrontal cortex came online at the 320 millisecond mark. The study authors wrote, “early signatures of modified face processing were followed by later markers of long-term social influence on the valuation process at the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.”
In other words, our brains take special note when our opinions disagree with the group. Later, if we come across those opinions again, our brain works to align what we think with what our group prefers.
The study participants changed their opinion about half the time to agree with their peers. But why? The researchers believe it has to do with avoiding conflict. If the brain both alters our opinions to align with our group, and helps us see reality in the future through the filter of our group’s opinions, we can avoid conflict.
So despite what we may hope, our brain favors group think over independent thought.
Evolutionary biology has increasingly recognized that our brains are adapted to live in small tribal groups as hunter gatherers; which is how humans have spent all but a brief period of our history. Being in conflict with the tribe was a life or death issue: no-one could survive for long on their own. So our brains are strongly adapted to make sure we stay in harmony with our groups, and it can feel like a life or death issue to be in conflict with them.
For example, Gen Z has gone to war with the Millennials over crucial fashion opinions like whether to wear skinny jeans or mom jeans. And the intensity just shows the power of group opinion. Gen Z extols the virtue of parting one’s hair in the middle on TikTok and says side parts make you look old. Meanwhile, Millennials fight back on Twitter and defend their hairstyles.
And some are so influenced by group opinion, they don’t know where to turn.
This sheds a great deal of light on why truly original thinkers are so unique. Whenever we go against the flow of our brains design, it takes a great deal of energy and conscious attention. So to oppose group opinion and forge our own path is even harder than we thought.
Or as study author Aleksei Gorin points out, ‘The brain absorbs the opinion of others like a sponge and adjusts its functions to the opinion of its social group.’
How can we be successful without breaking ourselves? We can take effective action under pressure.
I teach people how to use their own biology to do their best work.