Peer pressure causes people to literally alter their memories of recent events
Wednesday, July 20, 2011 by: Sally Oaken
When groups of people are exposed to a similar experience, their recollections of the experience, as well as their feeling and values related to the event, tend to reshape over time in order to conform to those of their peers.
Empirical evidence of memory conformity and social compliance have been suggested by classic physiological studies conducted since the 1950s. Famous experiments and studies have been conducted in school, prison and workplace settings.
But earlier this week, the Journal of Science published a study providing the strongest neurological evidence yet in support of the existence of memory conformity.
In the study, Micah Edelson and colleagues showed a documentary to a group of volunteer test subjects. Later, the subjects were asked questions about the documentary while theirbrainactivity was monitored by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
After recording their initial answers, researchers then shared incorrect answers with the test subjects, telling them that these answers had been provided by the other participants in the study. After being exposed to the incorrect answers presumably provided by their peers, a curious shift occurred in the memory centers of about 70 percent of the test subjects.
The amygdala and hippocampus areas of the subject’s brains, areas linked to memory and recall, began to experience increased activity, and the test subjects began to defend the incorrect answers. Their persistent defense of the false answers convinced researchers that the subjects actually believed the false answers to be true.
Interestingly, the amygdala and hippocampus did not experience increased activity when the false answers were supplied by a computer. The effects of memory conformity only occurred in the presence of social pressure. In a related article in the same issue of Science, researchers report and clarify on the distinction between public and private memory conformity, and suggest that subjects often pretend to support group responses even when they privately disagree.
Nevertheless, this study lends strong support to the possibility that our memories can actually be rewritten by the overwhelming force of our innate desire for social acceptance and conformity.
The results of the study can be applied to cultural and political events as well, and can be used to explain why illogical or irrational assertions can sometimes attain stubborn popular support. The curious persistence of doubts about proven scientific and historical events can provide a wealth of examples of the surprisingpowerof peer pressure when measured against the power of concrete evidence.