Dr. Greg Berns Answers Viewers' Questions on Conformity

ByABC News
January 13, 2006, 6:48 PM

Jan. 13, 2006 — -- Dr. Gregory Berns, a psychiatrist and neurosurgeon featured in the "Primetime" episode on Jan. 12 about conformity, answers viewer questions about conformity and human behavior below.

Click here to read the "Primetime" story, Why Do People Follow the Crowd?

Question: What is your opinion of those who constantly go against the group, answering correctly without being influenced by how the group responds? -- Luann, Midland, Texas

Answer: This is a very interesting area to study. In our experiments, we observed a wide range of conforming and nonconforming behavior, and although we know what happens in the brain when a person goes with or against the group, we don't yet know what makes some people more likely to do so.

Question: I have heard of this same issue of conformity in regards to a tragic event. Something will happen to someone and everyone looks on without doing anything. I think it was attached to a syndrome or behavior of humans -- this silent participation in which no one does anything to help. Is there a name for this disorder or situation? -- Stephanie, Royal Oak, Mich.

Answer: I think this is a little different from what we have been studying. The failure to act in such circumstances is driven by fear, which also plays a role in conformity. But what we're finding is that even without fear, a group may have the power to change how you see things.

Question: In a criminal case, six eyewitnesses to a crime wrote very similar affidavits -- the six were in a group and all are friends, family or in the same social activity. When interviewing the people, four changed their stories, saying they didn't see what they wrote. Do you have any resource material that would help explain this? When I was with the police department, I would rather have physical evidence or one good witness over many eyewitnesses any day. -- Dave, Denver, Colo.

Answer: This is an excellent question that gets at the heart of how do we know that what we see (or think we see) is reality? As we found in our experiments, when someone conforms to a group, they might not be doing so out of fear of being excluded. What other people say they see actually gets inside your mind and can alter the information coming from your eyes -- even before you are aware it is happening. With eyewitnesses, it is important to interview people alone, preferably before they've had the opportunity to compare notes with other people. The same process probably occurs inside the jury room too. Anyone who has been on a jury knows how group pressure can change how you see evidence.

Question: When looking at conformity from a religious standpoint, I can't help but see "mega churches." Do you have any comments that would relate to conformity and religion? -- Kaison, Mineral Wells, Texas

Answer: This shows the power that a group of people has to make you believe something you can't see.

Question: If these conformity tests were given verbally, what areas of the brain would be highlighted in a brain scan (when the test subject is going with the testing group and going against it)? Which one would show a higher result of conformity -- visual or verbal? -- Carerra, Fort Pierce, Fla.

Answer: When we did the experiment looking at the brain, the subject had to be in an MRI scanner. Because the scanner is very loud and people move their heads when they talk, we couldn't use verbal responding for that part of the experiment. Instead, we had people indicate their answers using a hand-held "voting" device. Stating answers verbally, as was done on "Primetime," is much more emotionally intensive and would be expected to result in higher rates of conformity. This is why so many people cannot tolerate giving a speech in public. Interestingly, the rates of conformity we found on "Primetime" exactly matched what we found in the scanner experiment, which was nonverbal, and indicates that both verbal and nonverbal forms may be equally potent.

Question: How can this research help teachers convince students to follow the behaviors they model? Could there be something in common between the couple that feared joining the group and those students that reject the instructional experience? And conversely, what drove the behavior change in those that followed the modeled behavior? What was their reward for the behavior? -- Paula, Bastrop, Texas

Answer: With students, we are dealing with two different issues. The first is conformity. There is a great deal of pressure for young people to conform to their peer group. This is natural because, after all, young people have not had the time to establish their own identity and consequently look to their peers. The second issue revolves around authority. Up to a certain point, teachers and parents wield authority over children. To be beneficial though, the authority should be used by way of example -- like setting an example of model behavior.

The reward is implicit (although we adults often make it explicit): If you want to be a member of a certain profession and reap the benefits of say, being a doctor, lawyer or entrepreneur, then you have to achieve certain things. Rejecting the educational experience is implicitly a rejection of those rewards. But the problem with those rewards is that they are so far in the future, they don't have much relevance to a child.

I strongly believe that the solution is to teach children that the greatest source of lasting satisfaction is their own achievements -- not measured by what their friends think or even by what adults think. The measure of success comes from within. Take pride in what you do, whatever it is, and if you do your best, then you will succeed.