Why your friends are hindering your minimalist journey

Peer pressure. Conformity. Kowtowing.

They’re all words for going along with the norm, albeit with rather negative connotations.

However, those words don’t mean you’re being bullied into sticking to the status quo. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Because, when we go along with the consensus of our peer group, our mind doesn’t object. Our brains don’t even recognise that we’ve been caused to change our mind by others. It happens subconsciously.

Cain, S. (2013) pg. 92

I found it really interesting to read neuroscience studies on the fear of judgement and Solomon Asch’s Conformity Experiment was one of the earliest to investigate group influence in 1951. The study asked participants to answer a question with a clearly obvious answer – to choose the length of a line that matched a target line.

The real participant was placed in a group of actors who has been instructed to all give the same wrong answer. The test was to see whether the real participant would go along with the answers of the majority. Over 12 critical trials 75% of participants went along with the group at least once, despite believing that the answer was wrong.

McLeod, S. (2018)

But fitting in or not trusting your instincts isn’t the only reason why you may feel the need to conform to your friends’ ways of thinking. A more recent study by neuroscientist Gregory Berns showed that our perception can be changed by a group at brain-region level.

In this study, participants played a shape-matching game alone and as part of a group. At the same time an fMRI scanner recorded the brain activity of the volunteers. When playing alone, the participants only got the wrong answer 13.8% of the time. But when in a group where other participants gave the wrong answer, they agreed with the wrong answer 42% of the time.

And it wasn’t just peer pressure that caused this result. The fMRI scans showed heightened activity in the occipital and parietal network – the visual and spatial perception regions of the brain – suggesting that group influence had changed the participant’s overall perception of the shape they were seeing rather than affecting their decision-making prefrontal cortex.

When asked, the conforming participants admitted to being blind to the group influence and truly believed the wrong answer to be correct. So, it stands to reason that your friends’ opinions of minimalism may impact your own thoughts on the topic more than you would care to admit.

On the flip-side of these two experiments, those participants who didn’t conform showed increased activity in the amygdala, the brain’s fear zone, so we can conclude that it was scary for the participants to go against the group consensus. Berns referred to this as “the pain of independence”.

Does it feel like you’re going against the grain by practicing minimalism? Would you worry about talking to your friends about your minimalist journey? If so, you may be feeling the urge to conform to group norms and that’s totally natural.

But would my friends using air quotes when they talk about me being “a minimalist” stop me from wanting to live with less? Perhaps not. But would it make me talk about the subject less around them? Definitely. Will it prevent me from going quite as far with my decluttering as I would like for fear of my home looking too stark and sparking those less-than-comfortable discussions with friends about minimalism? Yep. You’d never know from looking around my home that I’m a minimalist; there’s just enough of everything to not look out-of-the-ordinary.

Because I don’t want to discuss minimalism with my friends.

I don’t want them to change my mind.

Berns, G., Chappelow, J., Zink, C.F., Pagnoni, G., Martin-Skurski,, M. E., Richards, J. (2005) Neurobiological Correlates of Social Conformity and Independence During Mental Rotation. Society of Biological Psychiatry (Available at http://www.ccnl.emory.edu/greg/Berns%20Conformity%20final%20printed.pdf)

Cain, S. (2013) Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. 2nd Edition. London: Penguin Books

McLeod, S. (2018) Solomon Asch – Conformity Experiment [online] [28th December 2018] Available from: https://www.simplypsychology.org/asch-conformity.html