Is Conformity Addictive?

Even the best of us do it sometimes.

Standing in a coffee shop trying out a new drink ordered by the person in front of us – only to agree with our original judgement that it would be too sweet or just gross. It’s not unusual for people to change judgements and behaviors to conform in social settings. Conformity is a change in behavior or belief as a result of real or imagined pressure.

Dr. Solomon Asch conducted a groundbreaking study designed to evaluate a person’s likelihood to conform to a standard under pressure. He took a group of participants and showed them pictures of lines with noticeably different sizes. (He told them it was a visual perception test) Participants were then asked to identify the longest line out of a group of four lines of distinctively different lengths. Pretty simple, eh? Well, Dr. Asch organized it so only one person was the true participant in the group. Everyone else was a paid actor scripted to give the wrong answer. Unexpectedly, the unpaid volunteer almost always agreed with the actor group. Asch’s study showed our common tendency to be heavily influenced by a group. It also demonstrated people tend to care more about being the same as others than about being correct. 

Why? Our Brain Tells Us to Conform

Neurologically, our brains tell us something is off. Vasily Klucharev of National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow found that disagreement a with group opinion triggers a kind of negative alert.  “When you see a difference between your own opinion and that of others, the brain experiences an error signal,” reports neuroscientist Klucharev. “And when we detect that kind of error signal, it’s a signal to learn and adjust your behavior” The brain expects us to go along with the crowd and it doesn’t feel good not to. In fact, the degree to which your brain is activated for going against the crowd, the more your brain will tell you to change your behavior.

But That’s Not All

Our brain signals something is wrong when we go against the crowd; but it also rewards us when our opinion matches others. Chris Frith and Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, two researchers from the Aarhus University in Denmark and University College London, found that a part of the brain called the “ventral striatum” (a major part of the reward center of your brain) activated when rating pop songs. Whenever a participant’s rating matched the rating of two experts this pleasure part of the brain lit up. This observation shows that others’ opinions, when shared with your own, are rewarding. “That shared opinion is a reward like food or money,” says Campbell- Meiklejohn. “And it has the power to influence behavior.”

A more recent study from the Chinese Academy of the Sciences published in 2016 found that these conformity patterns can lead to permanent changes in the areas of the brain associated with memory.  The brain considers our past behaviors and experiences in situations and predicts what will happen in similar scenarios of the future. If we are behaving out of character, the brain screams “NO! don’t disagree”. The more we give into our brains, the higher the likelihood of conformity, or any other habit, happening again and again. Before we realize, it becomes a permanent pattern.

Go Against the Grain

Researchers are still unclear about the origins for the need to conform but the studies do lend themselves to being thought provoking and challenging.  How often do you conform? Do you realize how often you do? What do you experience when you try to say no? It may be time to practice dancing to the beat of your own drum or at least say no to the seasonal drink at the coffeehouse.

Contributed by

Angela Blocker, M.A, LMFT Associate

Clinical Supervision by Amy Fuller, PhD, LMFT, LPC

  • Campbell-Meiklejohn, D. K., Bach, D. R., Roepstorff, A., Dolan, R. J., & Frith, C. D. (2010). How the opinion of others affects our valuation of objects. Current Biology, 20(13), 1165-1170.
  • Klucharev V, Hytönen K, Rijpkema M, Smidts A, Fernández G  (2009) Reinforcement learning signal predicts social conformity. Neuron. 15;61(1):140-51.
  • Sukel, Kayt. “News.” Conforming Opinions Activate the Brain’s Reward Center. The Dana Foundation, 2 Nov. 2010. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
  • Whitbourne, Susan. “6 Ways to Stand Out From the Crowd.” Psychology Today. N.p., 14 Jan. 2017. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

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