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How Peer Pressure Changes Memory

Digital Vision/Thinkstock(REHOVOT, Israel) -- If asked whether Rhett stays with Scarlett at the end of Gone with the Wind, most having seen the film would confidently reply that he doesn’t.  But if the consensus in a group was to the contrary, would respondents' minds change?  Some might like to think not, but a century of psychology research says they likely would -- a phenomenon called “memory conformity."  It’s the power of peer pressure and it can permanently change our memory, even though what we remember initially may be correct.  

A study from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel used brain scans to determine exactly what happens in a person’s brain when memory conformity occurs.

Twenty study participants watched a video and three days later answered a variety of simple questions about the video’s plot.  They then returned a few days later and underwent a brain scan while being re-tested about the video -- except this time, they were also shown mostly incorrect answers from four fictional study participants.  As a result, participants changed their previously correct answers into the incorrect ones in 68 percent of the cases in which the “peer group” provided the wrong answer.  

But was this just group appeasement, or did peer pressure actually change the participant’s memory for good?  The authors brought back the participants one more time a week later and told them that they had played a trick on them and that the peer group’s answers were totally random and made up.  They then re-tested the participants’ memory and found that they reverted to their original, correct answers 60 percent of the time.  This means that 40 percent of the memories were permanently altered by peer pressure.  

Looking back at the brain scans from the time that the participants were exposed to peer pressure, the authors found an elevated level of activity between a brain area that processes emotion and one which processes memories.  They therefore think that it’s this “emotional override” of sorts which permanently alters our memories.
This study's findings are published in the journal Science.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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