Whether it was on the playground in elementary school, at a party in college, or on a whitewater rafting trip over Labor Day weekend, odds are high that at some point in your life you've gone and done something outstandingly stupid or risky in the company of friends.
But why did you do it? You might call it peer pressure, but scientists call it "the influence of social comparison," and now a team of researchers may have identified why it causes us to make those dumb decisions in social situations — decisions we would never make if we were by ourselves.
Like so many human behaviors, the explanation ultimately boils down to competition.
"Among animals, there are strong incentives for wanting to be at the top of the social ranking," said Georgio Coricelli, a neuroeconomics researcher at USC. "Animals in the dominant position use their status to secure privileged access to resources, such as food and mates."
A recent study led by Coricelli not only supports the idea that human behaviors like decision making are driven by the desire to achieve higher levels of social status, but also (more importantly) that this drive operates differently depending on a person's given social situation.
Coricelli and his colleagues investigated the effect of peer pressure on peoples' risky choices in instances of both private and social decision making. To accomplish this, the test subjects entered into a series of lotteries. Test subjects then had their brain activity monitored in both social and individual environments as lottery results were revealed.
The researchers describe their findings:
The striatum, a reward-related brain structure, showed higher activity when participants won more than their counterpart (social gains) compared with winning in isolation, and lower activity when they won less than their counterpart (social loss) compared with private loss.
Translation? Your brain is more likely to flood with reward vibes if you win the lotto in a crowded bar than if you win, say, alone in your living room. Likewise, losing the lotto alone in your living room will weigh less heavily on your mind than if the chick sitting next to you at the bar wins the lotto you just lost. Seems to make sense. But the researchers go on:
The medial prefrontal cortex, implicated in social reasoning, was more activated by social gains than all other events. Sensitivity to social gains inﬂuenced both brain activity and behavior during subsequent choices. Specifically, striatal activity associated with social gains predicted medial prefrontal cortex activity during social choices, and experienced social gains induced more risky and competitive behavior in later trials. These results show that interplay between reward and social reasoning networks mediates the inﬂuence of social comparison on the decision process.
In other words, participants who won in a social setting were more likely to engage in more risky and competitive behavior in the future.
"These findings suggest that the brain is equipped with the ability to detect and encode social signals, make social signals salient, and then, use these signals to optimize future behavior," Coricelli said.
What's more, the researchers found that "such brain activity and behavior in a social context is driven more by the prospect of winning than by the prospect of losing."
So in the face of peer pressure, your brain's cost-benefit analysis of a given situation is less likely to consider life and limb, and more likely to conclude that yes, jumping off the swing while it's flying at full-tilt is a great idea; that one more keg stand could only make the night that much better; and that this class-6 whitewater rapid isn't going to kayak itself.
Corecelli says one explanation for this behavior could be that group environments not only give rise to "winner-takes-all" scenarios, they also provide a support network in the event that your gutsy gamble goes wrong; in a private environment, taking a dangerous risk is much more likely to be life threatening.
Top image via djgis/Shutterstock
Image of bros via Deklofenak/Shutterstock
Kayaking image via