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Remember when you were in high school and your opinion hinged on the opinion of everyone else? “What am I doing talking to Joe? He’s a loser? Oh, right, no, I was just telling him how to eff off. Heh. Heh. Good one, right?” Note to self: Never be seen talking to Joe again.
Thank goodness those days are over, right?
Well, not exactly. While we might not strive to conform to others’ opinions, our views are shaped by our peers whether we realize it or not. And we don’t just adopt the opinions of the in crowd to avoid rejection. We actually take on their beliefs as our own. That’s according to a small study recent published in the journal Psychological Science.
Researchers at Harvard wanted to find out what happens to our thoughts when we conform to other people’s. Are we lying to ourselves in order to fit in, or do we truly change our mind in order to sync up with other peoples’ beliefs? To find out, the researchers asked a group of men to judge the attractiveness of 180 women. Each guy was individually shown an image of a woman, and told to rank her beauty on a scale of one to seven. After he put in his vote, it appeared on a digital bar graph below the image, next to a fake peer rating. Though the men believed these were real assessments by other men, they were actually computer generated to sway each participant’s opinion. If he rated a woman as particularly attractive, the computer would tell him that his peers found her particularly unattractive and vice versa.
Thirty minutes later, the men were asked to rate the women again, this time while hooked up to a brain scan. Not surprisingly, the men were influenced by the peers’ opinions, whether they realized it or not. When his fake cronies rated a woman as more attractive than he did, he gave her higher scores the second time around. Likewise, when his peers’ ranked a woman as less visually appealing than he did, he lowered his opinion of her upon the second glance. The brain scans revealed that the men bought into their newfound assessments. The reward area of their brain, associated with desire, lit up according to their ratings. In other words, they weren’t simply making rational judgments based on others’ opinions; they had changed their emotional response to these women, too.
Basically, it really does matter what your friends think. If you think Justin Bieber is a fox and your friends don't, you'll find him less attractive after they tell you what they think. Conversely, if you think Bieber is totally overrated, but your friends can’t stop gushing about how unbelievably studly he is, you might just get a little bit of Bieber fever, too. The lesson I’ve learned here is to make sure you get all of your guy friends to tell your boyfriend how incredibly beautiful, smart and perfect you are. This will up your attractiveness. And the correlate in this lesson is, if you’re in love with a total dork, don’t ask your friends or your mom for their opinion -- especially if you think they’ll tell you the truth. You may not tell him how to eff off high-school-style, but suddenly, you just might not feel that into him anymore.