Monday, July 04, 2005

An Essay On Being A Responsible Citizen

Meandering Amongst Neurobiology, Russian Literature, and Political Philosophy

There now is evidence for a biological basis for peer pressure.  

Everyone knows that there is a strong tendency for members of a group to tend to agree with each other.  There is a tendency, especially, for persons with certain leadership qualities to define certain social norms.  What has been discovered recently is one of the mechanisms for this phenomenon.  Surprisingly, it is not merely an appeal to emotion.  Rather, it is an alteration in the perception of reality.

In an elegant study , Gregory Berns, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Emory University, studied the effects of peer pressure on the functioning of the brain, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).  Details are here: NYT permalink; the 452KB PDF of the original study is here (BIOL PSYCHIATRY 2005;xx:xxx; article in press).  The study was designed to answer an old question in psychology, posed by Solomon Asch:
Dr. Asch, who died in 1996, always wondered about the findings. Did the people who gave in to group do so knowing that their answers was wrong? Or did the social pressure actually change their perceptions?

The reason this is an appropriate Independence Day post, is explained in the introduction to the paper by Berns, et. al.:
Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762)

Individuals in democratic societies are free to make choices and express their opinions, but the price of such freedom is sometimes the subjugation of individual choice to the general will—Rousseau’s social contract. The accepted resolution of the conflict between individual and group decision making is the well-known “rule of the majority.” There is a sound basis for this compromise: a group of individuals is statistically more likely to make a better decision than any one person alone (Arrow 1963;Grofman and Feld 1988). But the superiority of the group disappears when individuals influence each other (Ladha 1992). Moreover, individuals might capitulate to a group, not as part of the social contract, but because the unpleasantness of standing alone makes the majority opinion more appealing than one’s own beliefs (Cialdini and Goldstein 2004). How and why this happens has been debated contentiously. Here, we bring functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to bear on the problem of social conformity.

[links added, -ed.]
--Berns, et.al.
In other words:
...Thou wouldst have satisfied the universal and everlasting craving of humanity—to find someone to worship. So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship. But man seeks to worship what is established beyond dispute, so that all men would agree at once to worship it. For these pitiful creatures are concerned not only to find what one or the other can worship, but to find community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time. For the sake of common worship they’ve slain each other with the sword...

The Brothers Karamazov, Part II, Book V, Chapter 5: The Grand Inquisitor
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) | 1879 | Translation by Constance Garnett (1861-1946) | Public Domain

The actual paper by Berns, et. al., is nine pages of dense neuroanatomical jargon, but is worth reading if your only alternative is self-flagellation.  At least it is shorter than The Brothers Karamazov. (The entire text of Karamazov is online, here.)

In the Berns study, people were shown pairs of drawings of objects that had been rotated to different orientations.  They were asked to say whether the figures were the same, or different.  This required them to mentally rotate the images to see if there were superimposable.  During the task, they were told the conclusions  that certain peers had drawn.  In fact, the peers were trained actors, who sometimes deliberately gave false information.  What Berns et. al. found was that, when people agreed under the influence of peer pressure, there were alterations in the function of the brain area responsible for spatial awareness: the right intraparietal sulcus.   When they gave their own responses, in defiance of peer pressure, there was increased activity in emotional centers of the brain: right amygdala and right caudate nucleus.  

This would imply that emotional energy is required to act contrary to peer pressure; it is emotionally easier simply to go along with the group.  Not only that, but going along with the group results in actual changes in a person's perception.  When one's very perception is altered, there is no way they can invoke the higher-order function of reality testing to determine the validity of their observation.  This would be expected to lead to a state of mind in which the belief is firmly held.  

Although I am extending the conclusions here a bit, this may explain why it is so difficult for some people to reach agreement in an argument, if the belief they are defending corresponds to a belief that they feel is held by their peer group.  The belief they are defending actually looks like the truth to them; they have no way of seeing otherwise.

The NYT interviewed some experts regarding the conclusions of the study, and the implications.  One was Dan Ariely, PhD, a professor of management and decision making at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Dr. Ariely has a PhD in Marketing, and one in Cognitive Psychology.  
"It's a very important piece of work," said Dr. Dan Ariely, a professor of management and decision making at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the study. "It suggests that information from other people may color our perception at a very deep level."

If other people's views can actually affect how someone perceives the external world, then truth itself is called into question.

There is no way out of this problem, Dr. Ariely said.

But if people are made aware of their vulnerability, they may be able to avoid conforming to social pressure when it is not in their self-interest.

That final comment seems sensible.  If people are aware of this phenomenon, they may be able to overcome the effects of peer pressure, and engage in independent thought.  Indeed, I would argue that we all have a responsibility to do so.  If democracy is to function optimally, we have a duty to think and act independently.  I wonder, though, how feasible that is.  

Most people believe that they are smart enough to recognize peer pressure, and to resist it when necessary.  The Berns study shows that it may not be possible to recognize it in all cases.  

Bringing a clinical perspective into this essay, I must say that I have seen numerous patients who have disorders of perception.  For example, I saw a person who thought he/she saw an object fly into his/her mouth, then became convinced that the FBI had implanted a "chip" in his/her throat, that functioned as a listening device.  No amount of persuasion could alter this belief.  One reason that the belief was so firmly entrenched was that it was based upon the person's direct observation, faulty though it was.  The tendency to believe what you see is very strong, even if you do not have schizophrenia.

One might argue that the experience of someone with schizophrenia says little about the cognitive function of the general population.  Perhaps.  But I also have seen persons who have had altered perceptions while in a temporary state of altered consciousness: delirium.  Even when normal consciousness is restored, it is very difficult for them to believe that what they saw while delirious did not actually happen.  This appears to be different than the experience of someone who knowingly takes an hallucinogenic drug, such as LSD.  Such persons generally have no difficulty distinguishing hallucinations from reality, once the drug wears off.  But they have a conscious awareness of the fact that their perceptions have been altered, and an understanding of the reason for the alteration.  When conscious perception is altered without a person's awareness of the alteration, the capacity for reality testing is seriously strained.  Therefore, I suspect that perceptions that have been altered by peer pressure would be very difficult to challenge.

Of course, one way that people test the plausibility of their observations is to check with other people.  If one's peer group shares the altered perception, then there is very little chance that the alteration of the perception will be detected.  This is true especially if one affiliates only with those who share their views.

The Berns study does not address the issue of how one might be able to overcome the perceptual distortions imposed by peer pressure.  I hope that will be their next project.  I note that part of their research protocol involved an exercise in which participants and actors interacted, "to form group cohesiveness."  One wonders how the outcome of the study would have been affected, if the participants and the actors had not become acquainted beforehand.  Is there some particular element of kinship or camaraderie  that is necessary for peer pressure to distort one's perceptions?  If so, is it possible for one to learn to recognize this, and correct for the resultant biases?  

There is another hypothesis, one that might be even more interesting to test.  Would it be possible for a person to overcome the perceptual biases by forming relationships with persons of divergent viewpoints?  That is, if we cultivate and maintain friendships with persons with different views, will we be able to overcome the biases of peer pressure more readily?  Note that I am not referring merely to sharing a campus or a workplace with a diverse population, but actually having a relationship with them.  Dostoevsky claimed that "For the sake of common worship they’ve slain each other with the sword."  This suggests that it is not easy for those with divergent beliefs to form a tolerant community.

Is there a practical application to this line of reasoning?  Perhaps, most pertinently: if we have a leader who is a uniter, not a divider, will the democratic process work more effectively, leading to better, more rational decisions?  If we are encouraged to respect the opinions of others, to embrace those with diverse opinions as valid members of our community, will we be able to discern the truth more reliably?

And what about the converse?  Will the current political trend of incessantly vilifying one's opponents lead to such severely distorted perceptions that we cannot see the truth for what it is?  Will a population under such influence unwittingly develop a de facto one-party state, a body politic in which absolute power corrupts absolutely?
But let me tell Thee that now, to-day, people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet. But that has been our doing. Was this what Thou didst? Was this Thy freedom?’”

“I don’t understand again.” Alyosha broke in. “Is he ironical, is he jesting?”

“Not a bit of it! He claims it as a merit for himself and his Church that at last they have vanquished freedom and have done so to make men happy. ‘For now’ (he is speaking of the Inquisition, of course) ‘for the first time it has become possible to think of the happiness of men. Man was created a rebel; and how can rebels be happy? ...

... And we alone shall feed them in Thy name, declaring falsely that it is in Thy name. Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, “Make us your slaves, but feed us.” ...

As I said, we have a duty to do what we can, to be sure that our perceptions are accurate; that we are not unduly influenced by peer pressure, groupthink, propaganda, pop culture, or mass media.  To this end, we must learn to tolerate diversity, to converse with those who have differing beliefs, and to be willing to use those beliefs to challenge our own.  Failing in this duty, we open ourselves to demagoguery, and ultimately, tyranny.

On this Independence Day, we must remember that our soldiers did not thrust themselves in harm's way, only to see us lay our freedom at the feet of some politician.

(Note: The Rest of the Story/Corpus Callosum has moved. Visit the new site here.)
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This is very thought-provoking. It is unnerving to realize that true objectivity may not exist and that innocuous-seeming perceptions may be heavily shaded by those of others.

The Dostoevsky quote is an elegant addition. --ypsidixit
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