by Achim Nowak

The Neuroscience of CONFORMIST Thought

July 5, 2024

Ever had a moment when you find yourself agreeing with someone even though your gut tells you that they are dead wrong? When you submit to group consensus even though you believe the group is blatantly ignoring contradictory evidence?

Classic research presented by Robert M. Sapolsky in an old The Wall Street Journal column (“The Brain Science of Conformity,” 4/22/17) got me thinking about this.

It was startling. And so relevant to how you and I show up in every sphere of our lives – at work, with friends.

In the 1950s, Solomon Ash conducted research on why we conform. Ash would ask a person a question that had a very obvious answer, such as “Here is a line. Which of these three other lines is it closest to in length?”Another person would be asked the same question, this time while in the midst of a group of folks. The group folk, all planted by Ash, would answer first and unanimously pick a wrong answer. Shockingly enough, up to ¾ of the time the actual research subject would agree with the wrong answer.

Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”

John F. Kennedy

Herd thinking. Faulty reasoning justified. Blatantly bad decisions celebrated. Blinders and more blinders becoming normed.

The neuroscience behind this? The moment we notice that everyone disagrees with us, the amygdala and the insular cortex - regions of the brain associated with anxiety and unease - get triggered. The higher the degree of activation, the stronger the urge to seek relief. We are compelled to conform.

2 Levels of Conformity

Moreover, there are two levels to our conformity.

PUBLIC conformity: We are animated by a strong desire to belong to a group and not stand out. And we may be willing to adjust our thinking or beliefs when we’re alone again. Wait a minute, what I said in that meeting really doesn’t make sense. I’m not sure why I agreed with that decision. I wish I could take my words back. 

PRIVATE conformity: Our brain works overtime to justify a position we took in public. It involves the activation of the visual cortex and the hippocampus – areas central to memory formation and the writing of our own narratives. Darn it, I couldn’t have been wrong.

50% of all folks who choose public conformity in the face of contrary evidence, according to research conducted by the Weizman Institute in the University of Haifa, do not resort to private conformity. The other half, in fact, do.

Yes, there’s lots of neural activity as we juggle our desire to belong with our need to correct errors and explain things that simply don’t make sense. Here are some ways to be watchful:

Conformity Watch Tips

1. If you find yourself getting anxious in a professional meeting, know that you may unwittingly end up agreeing to things that don’t make sense. Notice your anxiety. Slow down. Be extra-mindful of what you say before you speak.

2. Sometimes we agree to a course of action simply because it is strategically or politically prudent for us to do so. When you do, be clear that this is a one-time strategic trade-off. Do not submit this trade-off to private conformity.

3. Beware of habitually agreeing with ideas or actions that violate your values and what you know to be true. You’re destroying your most important asset in any relationship – your integrity.

4. If you frequently come home from work and think obsessively about commitments you made, or if you more often than not spend time justifying these commitments – be vigilant. Your public behavior is becoming misaligned with who you really are. You have checked into Level I AND Level II Conformity Jail. The longer you stay, the tougher the road back to YOU.

The celebrated writer Rita Mae Brown said it beautifully: The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you but yourself.

No matter how savvy and smart you are, neural activity will kick in. Do not try to control it or deny it. Simply notice. Go on Conformity Watch. And stay out of Conformity Jail.  

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