Have you ever done something you wouldn’t normally do just because your friends dared you? Or have you ever been really excited to do something but a family member managed to talk you out of it?
Scientists at Virginia Tech have been investigating the mechanism behind peer pressure, and how easily we can be influenced.
The researchers believe that our own personal perception of risk is made up of two factors. First, there is the rational, mathematical side of us; then there is the more personal part, which can be influenced by social "nudges". Through tracking the brain activity in an MRI scanner as a group of volunteers played a fun game, these "nudges" were found to be encoded in a part of the brain called the "ventromedial prefrontal cortex".
In the game, two groups of people were given identical choices to make, although each choice carried a differerent financial risk. While making their choices, one group could see what decisions had been made by people before them, whereas the other group could not.
It turns out that our likelihood to take or avoid a risk can be altered by as much as 10-15% due to peer pressure alone! According to study author Brooks King-Casas, the more risk-averse among us can be made to take riskier actions, and the bolder of us can be persuaded to settle down a bit. Generally though, risky people are more likely to take even riskier actions, while more cautious individuals are more likely to play safe.
But can we turn this to our advantage? According to study co-author Pearl Chiu, "If you want to start exercising, for example, surround yourself with people who will encourage you to exercise." By being around people who will encourage us towards something we already want to do, it appears we get a boost in motivation to help us to go that extra mile. Maybe this is why "birds of a feather flock together", as the old adage goes.
The researchers believe that this mechanism evolved so that we can make more intelligent decisions based on the actions of people who have gone before us, and it is believed that this will increase the chances of our own survival.
So the next time you make a good decision based on a friend’s past experience make sure to thank your ventromedial prefrontal cortex … oh, and your friend as well!