Neural Mechanisms of Social Influence in Consumer Decisions, by Gregory Berns, C. Monica Capra, Sara Moore, and Charles Noussai: Abstract It is well-known that social influences affect consumption decisions. Although a number of different mechanisms have been hypothesized, a consumer's tendency to purchase a product is influenced by the choices made by his associative reference group. Here, we use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to elucidate the neural mechanisms associated with social influence on a common consumer good: music. We restricted our study population to adolescents between the ages of 12-17 because music is a common purchase in this age group, and it is widely believed that adolescent behavior is particularly influenced by perceptions of popularity in their reference group. Using 15-second clips of songs downloaded from MySpace, we obtained behavioral measures of preferences and neurobiological responses to the songs. The data were gathered with, and without, the popularity of the song revealed. The popularity had a significant effect on the participants' ratings of how much they liked the songs. The fMRI results showed a strong correlation between the participants' rating and activity in the caudate nucleus, a region previously implicated in reward-driven actions. The tendency to change one's evaluation of a song was correlated with activation only in the anterior insula, a region associated with physiological arousal, particularly to negative affective states. Our results suggest that a principal mechanism whereby popularity ratings affect consumer choice is through the anxiety generated by the mismatch between one's own preferences and others'. This mismatch anxiety motivates people to switch their choices in the direction of the consensus, suggesting that this is a major force behind conformity observed in music tastes in teenagers.
This may also explain why economists generally adopt the consensus forecast, and how this tendency to conform to respected opinion within the field due to "mismatch anxiety" can lead to herd-like behavior that causes us to miss things like a housing bubble. Why take the time to think hard about the problem yourself if, in the end, you are going to adopt the view of the most respected and powerful voices in the field anyway?