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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Bad or Good: Do Others Control Your Mind?

Conformity And Peer Pressure

"What you like and are motivated by 
can be really altered 
by what people around you 
like and find motivating to them."

--Jamil Zaki 
(Sarah D. Sparks, "Study: Peer Pressure May Change Students' Brains,"  
Education Week, February 25 2011)

A Harvard research team comprised of Jamil Zaki and others asked 14 men, ages 18 to 26, to rate the attractiveness of digital images of female faces.

Now, the participants were told this lie:

"Several hundred young men your age have already taken the test, and from time to time you will see the average attractiveness rating given by these men after you have rated a picture."

Here is why the "peer" rating was a sham. After the participants had rated enough pictures to give a baseline, a computer automatically generated fake ratings for some of the images either equal to the participant's stated rating or a few points above or below. When the participant assessed a face as particularly unattractive, the “peer" rating was disproportionately high, and vice-versa.

After the men had reviewed 180 photos, they were given a half-hour break and asked to re-rate the same pictures of the 180 faces again—this time without the peer ratings. While they did so, their brains were scanned by MRI (magnetic-resonance imaging) machines.  
The research team found participants uniformly 
changed their rating of the faces to match that of their "peers," 
though when asked, 
the young men insisted they had not changed any of their ratings 
between the first and second cycles. 

More importantly, 

The MRI scans of the participants' brains showed significantly different patterns of activity in two areas of the brain associated with determining subjective value and reward.

Where the peer rating was higher than theirs, 
the participants found the women lovelier on second thought. 
When peers rated a face as less attractive, 
the participants’ also lowered their opinions.

So, what is conformity? A true adoption of what other people think—or a guise to avoid social rejection? Zaki believes that conformity is not just "sucking up to a peer group." He concludes, "... "but maybe it's not really like that at all; maybe it's something a lot more profound, that it changes the way you think."

Zaki states,
"Even in our brains, 
“other people’s opinions leak into our own."

It seems changes to overall school culture may have a greater impact on student achievement than isolated programs. "It's one thing to change one kid's motivation, but I think the goal is to create cultural norms in a classroom or group," Zaki said. "You don't want just one standout student and the rest of the students hating school."

Positive Implications

According to Zaki, “We see conformity as a weakness; we say it supports bad behavior,” like smoking or overeating. “But if you think conformity is a powerful social mechanism through which we change our ideas about the world, it could be used positively”—encouraging people to vote or donate to charity. The added incentive: Valued behavior stimulates the brain’s reward regions. It feels good." ("Harvard University Psychological Scientists Have Investigated...,"Association For Psychological Science, February 27 2011)

The study builds on a 2009 study by Gregory S. Berns, a neuroeconomics professor at Emory University in Atlanta, which found adolescents rated their pleasure in songs more highly after learning their popularity.

Peer Pressure Related To Substance Abuse

Previous research has shown that friends' substance use is one of the most powerful influences that lead adolescents to use themselves. Recent studies have focused on the role of competence skills, which include good self-management and positive psychological characteristics.

High refusal assertiveness skills 
could protect young people 
from social risk factors for using substances. 

Here is an interesting look at high refusal assertiveness.

"The study, published in the April 2007 issue of the journal Addictive Behaviors, specifically looked at the skills of high refusal assertiveness (positive responses to questions like "Do you say 'no' when someone asks you to smoke") and sound decision-making skills (positive responses to questions like "When I have a problem I think about which of the alternatives are best").

"Results were taken from surveys of close to 1,500 predominantly Hispanic children from 22 inner-city middle and junior high schools in New York City over three years. The surveys included questions related to smoking cigarettes and marijuana, drinking alcohol, friends' substance use, family smoking patterns, and competence skills, including refusal assertiveness and decision-making skills. The surveys were collected from the control group only (those not receiving a prevention program) during a prior prevention project.

"The study found that students with high-refusal-assertiveness skills were less likely to use multiple substances (cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana), even when their friends used substances or their siblings smoked. Similarly, students with high-refusal-assertiveness skills, as well as those with good decision-making skills, were also less likely than students without these skills to intend to smoke in the future, even if they had friends who smoked. The study controlled for ethnicity, gender, age, academic grades and family structure. The anonymity of all participating students was protected.

"Since the study followed students over a three-year period, it was able to demonstrate that competence skills had a long-term effect in reducing the impact of friends' substance use. Previous research also showed that some competence skills decreased risk factors for some forms of substance use, however, these prior studies did not examine outcomes over an extended time period or concentrate on multiple substance use or future intentions. The Weill Cornell research is also unique in its focus on understudied inner-city adolescents.

"'The take-home message from these findings is that competence skills matter in our understanding of substance use,' says Dr. Jennifer A. Epstein, lead author and assistant professor of public health in the Division of Prevention and Health Behavior at Weill Cornell. 'They can combat powerful social influences from friends and siblings to use multiple substances, including cigarettes. Moreover, this research provides important support for drug-abuse prevention programs that include the teaching of competence skills, including refusal skills and decision-making skills.'" ("New Study Looks At Peer Pressure And Implications For Preventing Adolescent Substance Abuse," Medical News Today,, April 4 2007)

Read the entire article here:
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