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Brain scans of study participants showed different activities when people changed their minds for different reasons. SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images
  • In a study, researchers examined brain MRIs of participants as they were in the process of changing their minds.
  • Researchers report there was different brain activity between the people who changed their minds based on new information and those who did so for social acceptance.
  • Experts say the research is valuable because it stresses the importance of being willing to change your mind based on new information and opinions.

If your confidence is low, you’re more likely to conform to what others think.

That’s according to a new study published in the journal PLOS Biology that examined the types of activity that occur in the brain when a person is socially influenced to change their mind.

Social influence like this is typically categorized into two forms: informational or normative.

“Informational influence is when we change our beliefs towards those of others in order to maximize accuracy. This process is likely to be governed by our sense of confidence in our own initial beliefs,” the study authors wrote.

“By contrast, normative influence is when we change our beliefs towards those of others for reasons that are unrelated to accuracy. For example, we may seek to maximize group cohesion or social acceptance,” they added.

The research is the first of its kind to demonstrate that the brain behaves differently when undergoing informational influence or normative influence.

To undertake their study, researchers enlisted people to play a computer game.

During the game, people were asked to try and remember where a dot that was shown on the screen was located.

They were also asked to rate how confident they were in their response.

Once they had done this, they were then allowed to revise their earlier response after viewing a response from a computer or from their partner in the activity. They met their partner before the experiment began.

While the participants were under the impression their partner had made a response, all responses were actually from the computer.

An MRI was used to view the activity in the brain while the game was being played.

Researchers reported that the brain activity differed between normative and social influence. Participants experiencing normative influence showed stronger activity in the area of the brain responsible for decision making and empathy, a region known as the dACC.

Normative influence also showed stronger connections to the dACC from other regions of the brain.

Researchers also found that if a participant had a low level of confidence in their response, they were more likely to conform to the response they were shown, regardless of whether it was from the computer or their partner.

Shane Owens, PhD, a behavioral and cognitive psychologist in New York, said it wasn’t surprising those who weren’t confident were more easily swayed.

“When we are in doubt, we look to others for more information about our choices. The quality of our choices has a lot to do with how critical we are in evaluating the information they provide, whether that comes from informational or normative influence,” Owens told Healthline.

“Most of the time, what true experts say or social norms provide decent estimations of good decisions. Problems occur when we do not evaluate the source, the validity, and the reliability of the information,” he added.

Steven Siegel, PhD, the chief mental health and wellness officer for Keck Medicine of USC.

He said being open to a change of mind is important.

“If you never change your mind, you are rigid, you are not using the information that’s available to you, and you’re giving up the power to be thoughtful and make smart choices,” Siegel told Healthline. “Smart people use the information that’s available, and they reevaluate the decisions they’re making on a constant basis.”

“People should always be open to the idea that you can change your mind. Because that means that you have the capacity to learn,” he added.

“And you have the power to take in information and make your own decision. If we had a little bit less… of this rigidity, a little bit less of the ‘there’s nothing you can do that would sway me,’ there’d be a whole lot less discord,” Siegel said.

Study authors argue understanding the brain mechanisms behind social influence is important in understanding what contributes to a change of mind.

Owens said it’s possible to change views on something in a healthy way. It starts with knowing what you stand for and being aware of the influences you allow in your life.

“It’s vital to start with your core values. Consider what is most important to you — family, money, health, status, adventure, etc. — whenever making decisions about what to think and do. You may have to change your mind in order to be healthier, happier, and more well connected,” he said.

“Much of the time, maturation and growth require us to change our minds over the course of our lifetime. A lot of this happens without us thinking about it because of social influence and our desire to be liked and included.

“Because our thoughts influence our behavior and our emotions, any sense that you have that your life isn’t going well or that it could be better can and will likely start with a change in your beliefs. In that case, look to multiple sources for information, be critical of everything you see, hear, or read, and always check with people you trust or who are verified experts in their fields,” Owens said.