Under the Hood

People-Pleaser: Brain Scans Show Pushovers Agree With Others To Avoid Mental Stress

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People-pleasers may be hardwired neurologically to be social conformists and avoid conflict. J3SSL33, CC BY 2.0

Most of us have a public opinion about everything, from the 88th Academy Awards “#OscarsSoWhite,” to the 2016 United States presidential candidates. We like to think our views reflect our independent, avant-garde thinking, but we’re subtly, or sometimes not so subtly, influenced by the morals and values of others. Now, a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, suggests social conformists, or people-pleasers, may be neurologically hardwired to always agree with others.

We like to agree with others because it’s helpful in forming and fostering social relationships. This keeps us from confronting others whom we believe to be lying or stretching the truth. We avoid confrontation because it “creates an uncomfortable situation,” according to study author Dr. Juan Dominguez of Montash University in Melbourne, Australia.

The concept of social conformity has been the subject of extensive research since the ‘50s by social psychologist Solomon Asch. A series of studies known as the “Asch Conformity Experiments” sought to observe what influence peers had over whether an individual goes along with or against the majority of others in a social group. In these experiments, many participants agreed with the majority about trivial things (for example, the lengths of different lines) to “fit in.”

Based on Asch’s research, Dominguez and his colleagues investigated brain areas involved when people disagree with others to explore how individuals’ beliefs are influenced by social factors. The researchers asked 39 people who were lying in a brain scanner whether they agreed or disagreed with 192 true or false statements relating to biology, history, medicine, and physics. The participants were informed that each statement was made by either a student or a professor, and were told that some of them were known to be false. Some true statements they were asked to consider are: Orchid flowers have the most species; the first public library was opened in England; protanopia is the inability to see the color green; and the faster you move the heavier you get.

The ability of participants to agree or disagree with the statements varied considerably. Some tended to go along with what they were told. Surprisingly, whether the statements were said to come from a student or professor made no difference to their brain activity or response times. The researchers anticipated the participants would hesitate to disagree with a professor in a position of authority, but also felt that disagreeing with a classmate may make them similarly uncomfortable.

Brain scans showed a network of brain regions were notably active during the rare moments “people pleasers” would disagree. The medial prefrontal cortex, which mediates decision-making, and the anterior insula, involved in the experience of social emotions, bodily sensations, among others, showed more activity than other regions. Previous studies have linked these regions to the experience of cognitive dissonance, or the uncomfortable feeling of holding two contradictory beliefs.

In other words, those who dislike to disagree tend to experience worse cognitive dissonance when confronted with beliefs they don’t agree with compared to their peers. The researchers suspect this is accompanied by heightened mental stress and discomfort. This suggests sensitivity to mental stress is linked to an increased vulnerability to influence.

“This can potentially lead to poor decision-making, anxiety, or difficulties in interpersonal relationships,” wrote the study authors.

In a similar 2010 study, researchers found teens who were more influenced by others’ ratings of pop music showed an increase in brain activity in the anterior insula and anterior cingulate — regions of the brain related to decision-making. This supports the findings of the new study that some find disagreement more uncomfortable at a neurological level than others. Moreover, peer pressure during adolescence can lead teenagers to succumb to too much conformity, which could be dangerous.

“Having a lot of trouble disagreeing due to heightened mental stress may be indicative of an array of emotional, attitudinal or social issues comprising an individual’s ability to make autonomous choices,” wrote the study authors.

Sometimes agreeing to disagree is the best way to resolve a difference of opinion, without having to compromise our independence.

Sources: Dominguez JF, Taing SA and Molenberghs P. Why Do Some Find it Hard to Disagree? An fMRI Study. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 2016.

Berns GS, Capra CM, Moore S et al. Neural mechanisms of the influence of popularity on adolescent ratings of music. Neuroimage. 2010.

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