The Brains Behind Social Conformity and Change

This article tackles the idea of conformity and how it applies to how we as human conforms due to different types of social influences. Additionally, this article how psychology and neuroscience play a factor in the social factors that influence conformity.

By Nara Ito

Published 6:05 EST, Mon December 20th, 2021

Conformity: A change in a person’s behaviour or opinions as a result of real or imagined pressure from a person or group of people’ (Elliot Aronson 2011).

We all want to believe that we are in full control of our thoughts, make righteous judgments, and spot when others are trying to manipulate us.  However, psychology and neuroscience has shown that we are all influenced by social factors, and are influenced by peer pressure to adhere to others’ beliefs and behaviours. This article highlights how we as individuals shift our beliefs, mannerisms, and behaviour according to our environment, attachments and the situations we are in.

Conformity, according to an increasing number of neuroscientific studies, attracts brain signals that are comparable to those engaged in reinforcement learning. (Kim et al., 2012)

Reinforcement learning, or operant conditioning, is a core behavioural approach of psychology  that elucidates how we are able to learn behaviours.  Proposed by B.F. Skinner, operant conditioning is based on the idea that a behaviour can be learned of unlearned through constant reinforcement,  either positive or negative..

3  main types of conformity are:

Internalisation: when a person genuinely accepts the group norms, resulting in  private and public change of opinions, becoming part of the way the person thinks and acts.

Identification: conforming to the opinions of a group because there is something about that group we value thus publicly change our opinions to achieve approval.

Compliance :simply ‘going along with others’ in public, but privately not changing personal opinions.

Morton Deutsch and Harold Gerard (1955) developed a two-process theory, in order to explain the basis and reasons for conformity

Informational social influence (ISI) – The concept that one conforms with the opinion of the majority because we believe it is correct.  This may often lead to internalisation

Normative social influence (NSI) – When we agree with the opinion of the majority because we want to be accepted, gain social approval and be liked, possibly leading to compliance

So can social conformity and perception change brain physiology?

Potentially. In a study run by Campbell-Meiklejohn, Frith, and colleagues, found that the lateral orbitofrontal cortex is particularly sensitive to signs of social conflict or disagreement, which may influence changes of opinion.

Adorno et al. (1950) wanted to understand the anti-Semitism of the Holocaust, which their research they came to believe that a high level of obedience was basically a psychological disorder, and tried to locate the causes of it in the personality of the individual, in a study of more than 2000 middle-class, white Americans and their unconscious attitudes towards other racial groups. They developed the fascism scale (F-scale) which is still used to measure authoritarian personality. 

 Findings: Probably the most interesting discovery from this study was that there was a strong positive correlation between authoritarianism and prejudice. Authoritarian characteristics included a tendency to be especially obedient and conferment to authority. They have an extreme respect for authority and submissiveness to it.

For obvious reasons, there are no brain scans or images of the participants’ brains however, in a more recent study by Warner, Tranel and Asp, they concluded that clearly tendencies toward authoritarian attitudes and prejudicial beliefs are the result of environmental and genetic factors, but sufficient damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex can contribute to creating authoritarian individuals. Throughout both cognitive and psychometric tests, patients with lesions to this region exhibit consistent conformity and obedience to authoritarian commands as well as, patients with vmPFC damage. 

More modern neuroimaging studies complement these neuropsychological findings and provide evidence that the vmPFC and amygdala are critical structures involved in inhibiting and facilitating authoritarian attitudes.

In conclusion, this argument that we have free will, and control over who ‘we’ are is an extensive debate, but what is currently understood, is that humans conform, and have the potential to change aspects of themselves depending on the situation, whether it be consciously or unconsciously.

Nara Ito, Youth Medical Journal 2021


Warner, K., Tranel, D., & Asp, E. (2016). The henchman’s brain: Neuropsychological implications of authoritarianism and prejudice. In J. R. Absher & J. Cloutier (Eds.), Neuroimaging personality, social cognition, and character (pp. 325–335). Elsevier Academic Press.

Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. The journal of abnormal and social psychology, 51(3), 629.

Aronson, E. (2011). The evolution of cognitive dissonance theory: a personal appraisal. In The Science of Social Influence (pp. 115-135). Psychology Press.

Kim, D., & Hommel, B. (2015). An event-based account of conformity. Psychological Science, 26(4), 484-489.

Campbell-Meiklejohn, D. K., Bach, D. R., Roepstorff, A., Dolan, R. J., & Frith, C. D. (2010). How the opinion of others affects our valuation of objects. Current Biology, 20(13), 1165-1170.

Campbell-Meiklejohn, D. K., Kanai, R., Bahrami, B., Bach, D. R., Dolan, R. J., Roepstorff, A., & Frith, C. D. (2012). Structure of orbitofrontal cortex predicts social influence. Current Biology, 22(4), R123-R124.

Snyder, M., & Ickes, W. (1985). Personality and social behavior. Handbook of social psychology, 2(3), 883-947.

Adorno, T., Frenkel-Brenswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (2019). The authoritarian personality. Verso Books.

Hollander, E. P. (1958). Conformity, status, and idiosyncrasy credit. Psychological review, 65(2), 117.


By Nara Ito

Nara Ito is a student from London, England. She is interested in neurology, immunology, and genetics

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