Scientists have identified the part of the brain responsible for controlling whether we conform to expectations and group pressure.
The researchers found they were able to control whether volunteers conformed to social pressure by using powerful electromagnetic pulses that changed the activity of a small part of the brain.
Volunteers whose posterior medial frontal cortex, an area in the middle of the brain that is associated with reward processing, were exposed to the magnetic pulses suffered reduced levels of conformity.
The researchers believe this part of the brain dates back a long way in the evolution of animals and is responsible or automatically “correcting” our performance when we fall out of line with a group.
They say that by suspending this mechanism, it allows people to think and behave differently. They now believe it may be possible to develop drugs or behaviour changing techniques that could increase or decrease people’s conformity.
Dr Vasily Klucharev, a neuroscientist who led the research at the Radboud University Nijmegen, in Holland, said: “People can try to reduce conformity in certain situations, especially when they know about negative consequences of group pressure such as criminal behaviour, propaganda or aggressive marketing.
“Right now we can search for behavioural techniques that modulate activity of the posterior medial frontal cortex without any physical intervention. Hopefully, with help of these techniques someone would be able to partly immune themselves to ‘group pressure’.
“Drug manipulation of dopamine could also affect conformity.”
Such drugs would be controversial, however, as they could be used by companies hoping to make their employees more reliable or to help control rebellious individuals.
In the study, the researchers asked 49 female volunteers to take part in a study where they were asked to rate the attractiveness of 220 photographs of female faces, but they were allowed to change their ratings after seeing what others in the study had scored.
When Transcranial Electromagnetic Stimulation (TMS) was used to inhibit the activity of the neurons in the posterior medial frontal cortex, the participants did not change their ratings of the photographs so they were more in line with the rest of the group.
Dr Klucharev believes this part of the brain is responsible for generating an “error” signal when individuals deviate from the group opinion, triggering a cascade that leads them to conform with the group view.
He said: “What if that mechanism could be suspended for a time? The group who were exposed to the TMS changed their views to a much lesser extent – they were immune to ‘group pressure’.
“Individuals differ in the strength of the error signal – which is why some people are more conformist than others. It also tells us that conformity is a rather automatic process that is based on an old evolutionary mechanism.”