In 2009, Miley Cyrus reportedly made an astonishing 25 million dollars. Most of that money came from album sales, which were reported to be slightly over 4 million during that year. Four million…Four million?!  Have you heard Miley Cyrus sing? Are there really four million kids out there willing to spend their hard-earned babysitting money on a Miley Cyrus album because they deeply love listening to her sing? Well, according to the findings of a study recently published in Neuroimage, selling four million albums does not translate to having four million people like your music. The study reports that there is good reason to believe that a lot of those purchases were 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.

Gregory S. Berns, the chair of Neuroeconomics at Emory University, and his colleagues set out to understand more about the neural and behavioral mechanics of social influence on decisions about purchasing music. The researchers’ basic question was: When people change their behavior based on social influence, is it their actual preferences that change, or simply their behavior? In order to investigate this question they designed a clever behavioral study that was amenable to being performed while participants had their brains scanned.

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. Although these results are compelling, they do not address whether or not teens were actually “following the crowd” or, upon further reflection and information from their peers, changed their intrinsic preference for a particular piece of music. To investigate this question, Berns and his colleagues looked to brain activity.

Their logic was simple: Using the first rating of the songs, it would be possible to find a network of brain regions that related to individuals’ reports of liking the music. If, after they changed their minds in the second rating, this network appeared again, then it would suggest that the adolescents really did change how much they liked the music based on the influence of their peers. If, on the other hand, a different network of regions revealed itself following a change in likability rating, this would be more in line with the notion that teens were simply complying with their peers.

Liking of songs, based on teens’ initial ratings was strongly related to activity in the head of the caudate nucleus. Although the exact nature of caudate activity remains a source of debate, most agree that activity in this area is highly related to reward and valuation. So it appears to reflect pleasure, not familiarity. The researchers also observed activity in a number of regions that have been previously associated with the pleasurable aspects of listening to music.

When adolescents changed their ratings, according to their brain activity, it had nothing to do with increased liking of the music. Instead, a very different picture emerged. The network of regions associated with changing a rating included bilateral insula, the anterior cingulate cortex and the supplementary motor cortex and frontal poles -- regions previously associated with anxiety and pain. These regions all showed increased activity when teens were shown a popularity rating that did not match their own, meaning that they had this neural response prior to changing their own rating. Interestingly, individuals who demonstrated the greatest sensitivity to popularity, as determined by survey measures taken at the beginning of the study, manifested the strongest insula activity during the act of conforming. Simply, the greater the insula activity, the higher the odds of conforming. The authors suggest that this pattern of activity can be explained by cognitive or emotional dissonance caused by the mismatch between one’s ratings and the ratings of others.

So, the authors 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.” Again, this points to the function of peer influence during adolescence. During adolescence, peers wield considerable coercive power -- that is, friends are quick to dispense disapproval, teasing and rejection when social norms are not followed. The pain  of being rejected by one’s peer group can be a matter of life or death, as recent cyber-bullying cases in the news demonstrate.

So what does this study mean practically? Well, there are very different implications for commerce and parents. In terms of marketing, if you want to sell a lot of albums, get the popular kids hooked, and their endorsement will cause enough fear among their overly attentive peers to make the music sell. The idea of being able to relate to another teen for only $12.95 is very appealing to adolescents, who are consumed with trying to maintain their status in their peer groups.

For parents the implications are a little different. Take heart from these findings. It is likely the case that your teenagers do not actually like the terrible music you hear during those brief moments when they take their ear buds out. In fact, the researchers found that adolescents who were most sensitive to the ratings of others engaged in much less active listening (which is particularly encouraging given the lyrics of some popular music). The bottom line for parents is that if your adolescents’ need for the latest Hannah Montana album keeps them in step with their peer group, take it as a sign that they are aware of their culture -- and this type of conformity is often predictive of a teen eventually becoming a well-adjusted adult.