Jim Liebelt Christian Blog and Commentary

In Teen Music Choices, Anxiety Rules

Bottom line to this study... teens conform (at least in music choices) to their peers not to be popular, but to avoid the emotional anxiety and pain of being a "contrarian."

According to the findings of a study recently published in Neuroimage, when it comes to the music teens buy, a lot of those purchases are made out of fear -- a fear well known to adolescents all over America: terror of social rejection.

The fear of social rejection is so strong in adolescents because their relationships are essential for passing on the lessons that will enable them to join adult society. In order to do this properly and efficiently, teenagers come equipped with the ability to learn fast and furiously from their peers, especially those who wield more social power  -- who are older or more popular. Although this system developed because it helps  the teen transition to adulthood, it has proven an excellent principle upon which to base economic decisions. The popular kids dictate teen culture, and if they endorse it (Twilight, anyone?) it will sell.

The researchers chose to study adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17, a cohort thought to be highly susceptible to social influence, and known to buy at least one third of albums in the United States. Each participant heard a short clip of a song downloaded from the social-networking website Myspace. Following the clip they were asked to make two ratings, one indicating how familiar they were with the clip (which was always the hook or chorus of the chosen song) and one indicating how much they liked the clip on a five point scale. The clip was then played a second time, and they were again asked to rate how much they liked the song. However, in two thirds of these second trials the teens were shown a popularity rating that was estimated based on the number of times the song was downloaded.

When no information about the popularity of a song was displayed, teens changed their likability rating of the song 12 percent of the time. Not surprisingly, after being shown the popularity of a song, teens changed their ratings more frequently, on average 22 percent of the time. This difference was highly significant, and it is worth noting that among those who changed their likability ratings, 79 percent of the time teens changed their ratings in the direction of the popularity rating -- they followed the crowd.

These behavioral findings validate a great deal of previous research on conformity, and demonstrate that it is alive and well in the average American adolescent.

But, did teens actually "follow the crowd" or, upon further reflection and information from their peers, changed their intrinsic preference for a particular piece of music? The researchers investigated the question by looking at brain activity, and found it had nothing to do with increased liking of the music. Further, the research indicated that when teens became aware they held a unpopular likability rating for a song, brain activity registered in an area associated with anxiety and pain.

So, the researchers argue, conforming seems to be motivated not by the positive utility of behaving like your peers, but instead out of anxiety and pain at the prospect of being a "contrarian." 

Source: Scientific American

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