I ran across this story in the New Scientist just the other week. It's about herd mentality, a character trait all social animals have, but one we like to imagine only exists in humans when it's "them" (in the "us vs. them" worldview).
Nothing earth-shakingly new about the idea that humans will go along with a crowd, but right at the end was a discovery that really shocked me. Vasily Klucharev, at the Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, (my spell checker just crapped itself), did a study where they asked 24 women to rate more than 200 women for attractiveness. They must have been shown the ratings other women did and were then allowed to readjust their own ratings, because it says that if they discovered their scores were significantly different, they would change theirs to match consensus.
Now here's the shocking part:
When a woman realised her differing opinion, fMRI scans revealed that her brain generated what the team dubbed an "error signal."(emphasis mine)
Did you see that? Your brain, that wonderful little "You Factory" that you depend on for, well, everything, will actually tell you "Hey, you were wrong" when your opinions go against your peers.
I don't know about you, but that kind of pisses me off a little bit. Brain, I trusted you *shakes fist*! But it's not really surprising, though, is it? Peer pressure is common knowledge. But knowing the science behind it makes it a little more urgent, doesn't it?
Just trying to raise awareness on this simple, fundamental fact: you can't trust your brain.
So, what do we do about it? Well, in the same way that science provides a self-correcting system to check our hypotheses, I would recommend some sort of system to check your instincts and gut reactions. For me, it's Buddhism. But before Buddhism, it was just remembering the Bene Gesserit from Frank Herbert's Dune novels--they often talked about the difference between a human and a human animal; the idea that 99% of all humans react to their instincts no different than a lower animal and that to rise above such animalism and truly achieve our potential, a human must always examine their intentions and know the "Why" behind every action, every word spoken, every opinion held.
Try it some time. Ask yourself "Why?" you feel a certain way, or said a certain thing, and really be honest with yourself. Despite how well you might superficially think you understand your intentions, you may be surprised to discover what lies just beneath your immediate conscious awareness.
And such self-awareness is not only informative, it's also empowering. It gives you the chance to adjust your actions and feelings to match your true--that is, your conscious--intentions.