Human beings are social creatures, but revealing new evidence shows that this quality is not always beneficial.
A study published last year in the journal Science found that when a person is pressured by peers, they have a tendency to form false memories and can convince themselves of different recollections of the past in order to fit what others insist is the truth.
“Human memory is strikingly susceptible to social influences, yet we know little about the underlying mechanisms,” said an abstract of the study.
“We examined how socially induced memory errors are generated in the brain by studying the memory of individuals exposed to recollections of others. Participants exhibited a strong tendency to conform to erroneous recollections of the group, producing both long-lasting and temporary errors, even when their initial memory was strong and accurate,” the abstract said. “Our findings reveal how social manipulation can alter memory and extend the known functions of the amygdala to encompass socially mediated memory distortions.”
Peer pressure convinced people they were wrong
Participants in the study watched a movie in groups, and then were questioned individually about the film afterward. Four days later, participants were questioned once more.
Researchers said that 70 percent of the time study participants changed their recollection of the film to match incorrect memories held by the others in their group, a finding that held true even for questions participants had initially felt very strongly that they had answered correctly.
Scientists involved in the study called these lapses “socially induced memory errors” because they discovered conclusive evidence that the group caused the change in answers.
“Participants were hooked up to an MRI while answering questions, and their hippocampus and amygdala lit up when changing their answers after being told the group’s memory differed from theirs, but not when a computer told them they were wrong. In other words, peer pressure convinced people they were wrong, as opposed to cold facts,” said an analysis of the study by The Raw Story.
In half of the memory errors, the false memory replaced the person’s initial, true memory.
As pointed out by Mother Jones magazine, the study’s results could explain why poll numbers indicate extraordinarily high levels of support for statements like “Obama is a Muslim” and “Obama is not a U.S. citizen” – statements that are demonstrably and provably false but which are vocally supported by several groups and media outlets.
Prior to this study there had already been evidence suggesting that people were very willing to change their stories, even if they knew they were true, due to social pressure. What makes the most recent study, by lead researcher Micah Edelson, an Israeli scientist, unique “is he used an MRI scanner while people were answering interviewers’ questions,” Mother Jones’ Jen Quraishi wrote.
Edelson found that study participants’ hippocampi and amygdales indicated activity only when people changed answers to match those shared by their viewing group. But if they were told to change their answers by a computer, their hippocampi and amygdales did not activate; the hippocampus is associated with memory; the amygdale is linked to emotion.
Not always a bad thing
“Our memory is surprisingly susceptible to social influences,” Edelson said during a July 2011 podcast. This could be cause for concern to some people, he said, because “studies have shown that…[witnesses] often discuss crime details with each other before testifying, and this can definitely have an influence on court cases.”
Subsequent studies have indicated that toddlers, too, may also give into peer pressure.
Researchers reported that 2-year-olds are more likely influenced to copy the actions of three other toddlers than if they saw the same actions carried out by just one other toddler, according to a report by HealthDay.
That said, peer pressure sensitivity needn’t always be negative.
“The tendency to acquire the behaviors of the majority has been posited as key to the transmission of relatively safe, reliable and productive behavioral strategies,” said researcher Daniel Haun, of the Max Planck Institutes of Evolutionary Anthropology and Psycholinguistics in Germany and the Netherlands.