Point 'Oh!' Five


Dissidents, Dissent, and the Means to Social Harmony

The most dangerous man is one who wants to be heard, knows that he’s not, and thinks that he should be.

In 1861, political tensions over slavery culminated in the American civil war. In the decades prior, Northerners began to increasingly perceive slavery as a threat to republican democracy and Southerners came to believe that emancipation of African-American slaves would cripple their economic and social security (1). In the decade leading up to the civil war, while opposition to slavery was reaching a critical mass (operationalized as total moral disgust for Southerners), a new word – “ignored” – began to enter the American Lexicon. While any association between word-usage and the political psyche of the day would be purely speculative, the rise of the word “ignored” is intriguingly correlated with the emergence of a new social order in which dissent is not only passé, but taboo. It’s one of the ironies of contemporary politics, that in an age of enlightened tolerance, mass communication, and free expression that so many people feel unheard and unempowered: increasingly subjugated to the confines of social prowess and power. But, as one critical theorist put it, “Where there is power, there is resistance.”


Setting aside unsympathetic southern slave owners for a moment, there are plenty of other examples of social resistance out there: Among the most well-known, radical groups like Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Daesh (ISIS), have each struggled against oppressive regimes, foreign interference, and harsh social scrutiny; and, in turn, each of them has turned to violence as a means of resistance. This phenomenon has given rise to a number of social theories: “deprivation theory,” “crisis theory,” “cultural theory” – each focused on understanding the motives and means of resistance. However, a careful scan of the literature reveals that most of these perspectives are pejorative and paternalistic: they frame dissidents as backwards and ignorant; posture them as terrorists or sectarians; and define them by their narrow-mindedness, radicalism, and extremism (2). And while all of these things may very well be categorically correct, they nonetheless do little to actually address the underlying processes that transform disagreement to derangement. In fact, most evidence goes to show that this is hugely counterproductive. After all, groups rely on the strategies available to them; and while violence is the last resort for most, it is almost always available.

But, what causes someone to take up a dissenting view? How do these individuals escape social pressures, norms, and stigma? How do groups keep themselves from fracturing? What benefits are there to belonging to a dissident group? These are the sort of questions we must consider if we are to avoid the fomentation of anger that is so often consanguineous with social oppression. As it turns out, the answer to each of these questions has less to do with any specific enclave than it does with the interaction between individuals and the broader society in which these pockets of contestation boil.

In recent years, the rapid development of neurobiological research methods have allowed us to understand better the neurological basis of social influence and conformity (3). For example, imagine that you are shown a series of faces and asked to rate them on their level of attractiveness. After rating each photo, you are then shown the average score that face received from others. Later, you are shown that face again. What do you think happens to your rating? If it was independent of others, you’d expect it to be about the same as it was the first time you rated the face; but as it turns out, empirical evidence shows that individual ratings regress towards the mean: we conform our ratings with those of others. More accurately, when we see that our scores are different than the composite scores, activity in the rostral cingulate zone of the medial prefrontal cortex (an area associated with processing conflict) increases, and activity in the nucleus accumbens (an area associated with motivation, reward, and reinforcement learning) decreases. Perhaps most surprisingly though, perceptual representations of visual stimuli in the occipital-parietal network change – people don’t just rate differently after seeing the composite score, they observed differently (And continued to do so due to long-lasting modifications in the amygdala [an area associated with decision making, memory processing, and emotional reaction] and hippocampus [an area associated with conflict avoidance and long-term memory]) (4). This same phenomenon has been documented with respect to group choices, food score ratings, behavior change, song preferences, and more – suggesting a neurobiological foundation for social conformity (5,6).

But what does this tell us about non-conforming behavior? If we are naturally predisposed to correct discrepancies between our own thoughts and the thoughts of others, how can we explain individuals who constantly disagree even in the face of mass-conformity? This is where group politics come in. While neurobiological research is less developed with respect to understanding non-compliance and dissent, some research shows that the effects of neural-conformity are stronger within groups than between groups (7). This is believed to be the case because there is a greater reward (e.g., positive affect, social trust, acceptance, inclusion, social advancement) for agreement with your own social groups than with other groups. However, the emergence of radical dissenters is reliant on more than just the presence of a group who will affirm them. There must also be processes of social exclusion, in which individuals are “other-ized.” Under such circumstances, neurobiologically-driven certainty, particularly that which is contrary to predominant norms, is bound to emerge. This sort of certainty, after all, is a coping mechanism meant to facilitate group safety and solidarity. Thus, we can infer, that social exclusion lies at the heart of controversy and political dissidence.

So, if we understand that opinions and worldviews are largely the product of in-group social conformity, and that exclusivity serves as a mechanism for “other-ing” out-groups, then what should we do about this? We could carry on and try to persuade others to our view. We could try calling them out and stigmatizing their viewpoints. We could show them how right we are and how all the evidence is on our side. I think this is generally what we in the majority try to do. I also think that this is an unbelievably lazy approach, and not to mention a counter-productive one. If we are to prevent danger and dissent, we must actively seek to include those with whom we disagree. Breaking down social barriers is likely the only remedy to social conflict...and that starts with listening.



1. Dew CB. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. 35242nd edition. Charlottesville U.S.; London: University of Virginia Press; 2002. 144 p.

2. Douglas M, Mars G. Terrorism: A Positive Feedback Game. Hum Relat. 2003 Jul;56(7):763–86.

3. Stallen M, Sanfey AG. The neuroscience of social conformity: implications for fundamental and applied research. Front Neurosci [Internet]. 2015 Sep 28 [cited 2017 Oct 17];9. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4585332/

4. Berns GS, Chappelow J, Zink CF, Pagnoni G, Martin-Skurski ME, Richards J. Neurobiological Correlates of Social Conformity and Independence During Mental Rotation. Biol Psychiatry. 2005 Aug 1;58(3):245–53.

5. Wu H, Luo Y, Feng C. Neural signatures of social conformity: A coordinate-based activation likelihood estimation meta-analysis of functional brain imaging studies. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2016 Dec 1;71(Supplement C):101–11.

6. Amodio DM, Frith CD. Meeting of minds: the medial frontal cortex and social cognition. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2006 Apr 1;7(4):nrn1884.

7. Stallen M, Smidts A, Sanfey AG. Peer influence: neural mechanisms underlying in-group conformity. Front Hum Neurosci [Internet]. 2013 Mar 8 [cited 2017 Oct 17];7. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3591747/

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