Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Interpersonal Communication: Social Conformity

From the pages of the NY Times, A new study at Emory University in Atlanta goes to the root of social conformity:

"The researchers found that social conformity showed up in the brain as activity in regions that are entirely devoted to perception. But independence of judgment - standing up for one's beliefs - showed up as activity in brain areas involved in emotion, the study found, suggesting that there is a cost for going against the group.

'We like to think that seeing is believing,' said Dr. Gregory Berns, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta who led the study.

But the study's findings, he said, show that seeing is believing what the group tells you to believe. "

The study used MRI to measure brain activity in the test subject. Each subject was shown a pickture of two objects and was asked to mentally rotate the objects to determine if they were the same or different. They were placed in a group (of actors) who would voice their opinions first. Sometimes the actors would choose the correct answer, and other times the incorrect one. In fact, subjects went along with the wrong answer 41% of the time due to good old fashioned peer pressure.

From an evolutionary point of view, this makes sense. If you live in a small community where you rely on those around you for your basic needs then going along with the group can be a matter of life or death.

In modern society however, there are some problems with this. Our justice system and government rely on group decisions because we assume that group decisions are more intelligent than individual ones. If people have a negative emotional reaction to speaking out against a group then the entire assumption becomes suspect. Group decision making becomes more about who speaks up first and loudest, rather than a weighing of everyones ideas in favour of the best one.

I would like to see this study taken a step further. I am interested in finding out what would happen if the subjects of the study were amoungst colleagues instead of strangers. In an environment where people have some familiarity do they hen aquire the comfort level needed to speak up? If not, we may have to re-think things


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