What exactly goes on when someone follows the herd instinct? ‘I have always wondered how others affect our brain, causing us to change our opinion,’ says Vasily Klucharev, Dean of the HSE Faculty of Psychology and a leading researcher at the University of Basel, Switzerland. ‘Usually the question is, how are we manipulated? – which is studied by social psychology. But we decided to look at it from a different perspective and examine what happens in the brain when people change their mind under social influence.” A prominent neuroscientist, Klucharev describes his research as neuroeconomics, a field where neurology, psychology, and economics overlap.
Klucharev's central hypothesis is that people have a built-in sense of being similar to others. When we differ from the crowd our brain triggers an error signal as if saying, ‘You are wrong; change your mind immediately!’ This signal is generated by the dopamine system linked to a number of areas in the brain, including the prefrontal cortex. This system mediates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in triggering error signals every time our judgment is different from that of the crowd.
Laboratory studies reveal that changing one's opinion under social influence triggers a massive dopamine release in the brain. Klucharev wanted to go further and explore whether it is possible to reduce one's desire to conform by temporarily suppressing the brain's dopamine response.
‘We used a procedure known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) on the medial-prefrontal cortex involved in the regulation of the dopamine response,’ Klucharev explained. It made the subjects 40% less susceptible to changing their opinions to conform to the group’s, without any discomfort.
An opposite experiment was conducted in Denmark to see whether the desire to conform may be influenced by giving volunteers a pill that increases the amount of dopamine in the brain. And indeed, subjects were observed to change their minds more readily to match the majority opinion. These results demonstrate how much we are affected by our dopamine response every time we differ from the crowd.
Knowing that the choice to follow the crowd is determined by physiology is extremely important, Klucharev believes. ‘We need to understand how easily we can be manipulated because of the way our brain has been shaped by evolution,’ he explains. In most cases, he argues, we are not even aware of the majority’s influence on our behavior. ‘Our internal self-assessment system always compares us to others. We keep checking our behaviour against that of others, expecting to be like them.’ Otherwise, our brain triggers a learning signal by creating discomfort.
However, Klucharev argues, our brain's desire to conform is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is a survival strategy. ‘Being a conformist may be right from a biological and evolutionary point of view. Human behaviour patterns have been tested by evolution, and this one has proven to be effective, because we have survived and continue to procreate.’
However, some people are less conformist than others even in the face of physical danger, such as revolutionaries whose behaviour may be explained, somewhat shockingly, by their brain's anatomy. This was shown by a Japanese study that examined the relationship between the thickness of the medial-prefrontal cortex, which generates the dopamine response, and the subject's need to be different and have his or her own opinion – the so-called propensity for uniqueness. They found that people who have a desire to be unique may have a slightly different brain physiology. ‘Theirmedial-prefrontal cortex, responsible for generating an error signal, may be somewhat thinner, ’Klucharev suggested, noting that further research is required.
Brain dopamine levels differ among people and may determine an individual need to conform. However, the dopamine-mediated error signal may also be determined by other factors, such as the strength and nature of the group perceived to be the majority. If the group is one you like and wish to be a part of, you are more likely to conform. The opposite is also true, as was shown by U.S.-based research. The dopamine-mediated error signal occurred more often when a subject's opinion differed from that of a group they liked, and was absent when the subject disliked the group.
Further research is needed to examine what happens in the brain when a minority suddenly becomes a majority. ‘It would be interesting to explore a situation where a couple of revolutionaries mobilize everyone and turn a situation around. Shortly before the Communist revolution in 1917, Lenin wrote that a revolution would not be possible in Russia for years to come, but then suddenly ‘the situation exploded’, Klucharev notes.
Today's protests in Russia interest him for the same reason. ‘We live in a digital age when a local minority in social networks becomes a sort of internal majority,’ he says. People are mobilized and join crowds they perceive to be the majority, while in fact they are a minority. This, Klucharev believes, may be an exciting area for future research.