Conforming to music

By Emily Ornberg

Popular music might only be as trendy as the people who market it.

According to the findings of a 2010 study published in the neuroscience journal NeuroImage, many adolescent music purchases are based on the fear of social rejection.

“Adolescence is notoriously a time for inadequacy and superiority,” said Jerry Weichman, a clinical psychologist and adolescent specialist at the Hoag Neurosciences Institute in Newport Beach, Cal.

Weichman said a high percentage of adolescents consume popular music even if they don’t personally like it because they believe it is important to conform. He said that if enough teens follow a trend, it will spread like wildfire.

Dr. Gregory S. Berns, professor of neuroeconomics and director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University in Atlanta, and his colleagues designed an assessment to further explore the neural and behavioral workings of social influence on teenagers’ music purchases.

The study used 27 adolescents ages 12 to 17, an age group that is highly susceptible to social influence, according to Weichman. Participants listened to a 15-second clip of a song and were asked to make two ratings: one indicating how familiar they were with the clip and one indicating how much they liked it on a 5-point scale.

The clip was then played a second time, and participants were asked to rate the song again. However, during these second trials, two-thirds of the teens were shown a popularity ranking based on the number of times the song

was downloaded.

In the trials that revealed the song’s popularity, teens on average changed their ratings 22 percent of the time. Among those who adjusted their answer, 79 percent of the changes paralleled the song’s ranking.

Lucas Phelan, a disk jockey for KDWB-FM Top 40 station in Minneapolis, said this study confirms the reality of how music is consumed. He also said once people decide on their favorite type of music, they will most likely be accepting of every song in that genre.

“Most people are sheep to one degree or another,” Phelan said. “People can slap up a song on their Facebook page, and their 800 friends can see it and listen to it. And if Suzie likes it, then Johnny is probably going to like it too.”

In order to prove that conformity is linked to worry and fear, the Emory researchers turned to brain activity.

During the two trials, they monitored the changes in the brain’s networking regions that related to the teens’ liking of the clips. The first trial ratings showed activity in the brain’s caudate nucleus, a region related to reward and valuation, which revealed a genuine taste or distaste for the song clip.

When adolescents adjusted their ratings, however, their brain activity showed that their choice had nothing to do with changes in how they liked music. The activity was mostly isolated to the bilateral insula, a region associated with anxiety and pain.

These parts of the brain also showed increased activity on an MRI scan when the popularity of the song clip didn’t match the adolescent’s own rating. Subjects who demonstrated the greatest sensitivity to conformity in pre-study exams manifested the strongest bilateral insula activity. Researchers came to the consensus that the greater the insula activity in these teenagers, the higher the odds of conforming.

Scott Roth, a clinical and forensic psychologist who specializes in adolescence, said anxiety is one of the most common reasons patients are referred to his practice. The more people are seen liking popular music, the more pressure there is to conform, Roth said.

“Adolescents are in this time of identity formation,” he said. “People may find within the mainstream pop music that’s out there to feel pressure to conform and like it.”

Phelan said although he chooses the radio playlist for Top 40 stations, he would never take advantage of malleable teens by marketing whatever a record label wants him to. He said research and testing help him play what he thinks will appeal to his audience.

However, Jerry Brindisi, an arts, entertainment and media management faculty member who teaches Music Business and has previously worked for Sony’s marketing research analyst, said music marketing definitely has an impact on the masses. He said this is because most people are passive listeners who allow the music they like to come to them.

“Regardless of the genre of music, people­—particularly younger people—tend to navigate towards or identify with music in its relationship to lifestyle as a means of fitting in and finding a place,” Brindisi said. “They often look towards music to help sort of fill some of [their] needs.”

Nia Butler, 16, and Danielle James, 17, both juniors at Jones College Prep in downtown Chicago, said they notice conformity at their school.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are, or what high school you go to,” James said. “[Teenagers] are going to conform.”

Butler said she isn’t interested in mainstream music, and James said her favorite genre is alternative. Though they’re interested in different genres, James said they can still be friends without conforming to each other’s tastes.

However, Butler added, “It’s hard not to conform with peer pressure constantly on your back.”