How Our Brains Are Biologically Tuned to Be Influenced by Confident People

Summary: The brain automatically places more value on the opinions of people who appear to be confident, a new study reports.

Source: University of Sussex.

Scientists have uncovered that the added influence of confident people may be down to our biology.

By studying brain activity, academics discerned that human brains are geared for placing added value on opinions of confident people.

The research, published today in the Journal of Neuroscience and led by University of Sussex psychologist Dr Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, pinpointed a region of the brain that responds to confident (but not unconfident) opinions of others when making decisions.

The scientists examined the active brains of 23 healthy volunteers and found that expectations of success could be influenced by three key elements: personal experience, learning what the majority people believe and, most importantly, learning what confident people believe.

Image shows a brain scan.

The first two had widespread effects on the brain’s reward system, which predicts how satisfied we will be when we choose something. Opinions of confident people, however, had an additional effect on this reward system – and only in a part of the brain that appeared late in our evolution.

Discussing the research, Dr Campbell-Meiklejohn said:

“This additional effect seems likely to be the mechanism by which the confidence of others can give us reassurance in our actions. Our findings suggest that social transmission of beliefs and preferences is not as straightforward as copying the person next to you. Other elements are clearly at play during the decision-making process.”

The researchers observed that this extra activity occurs next door to a brain area that helps us consider what others are thinking. This is important for the next step, which is to figure out what the brain is actually doing when we observe confident people.

“We can now consider that this part of the brain may be inferring, correctly or incorrectly, the quality of the confident person’s information before deciding whether or not to let that person change our beliefs,” adds Dr Campbell-Meiklejohn.

“In today’s political climate in particular, we should be aware that when facts aren’t clear, we may be biologically tuned to allow seemingly confident people to hold more sway on our own beliefs.”


The study was completed in conjunction with researchers at Aarhus University, University College London and Princeton University.

Source: University of Sussex
Image Source: image is adapted from the University of Sussex press release.
Original Research: Abstract for “Independent Neural Computation of Value from Other People’s Confidence” by Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, Arndis Simonsen, Chris D. Frith and Nathaniel D. Daw in Journal of Neuroscience. Published online December 9 2016 doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4490-15.2016

University of Sussex. “How Our Brains Are Biologically Tuned to Be Influenced by Confident People.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 13 December 2016.


Independent Neural Computation of Value from Other People’s Confidence

Expectation of reward can be shaped by the observation of actions and expressions of other people in one’s environment. A person’s apparent confidence in the likely reward of an action, for instance, makes qualities of their evidence, not observed directly, socially accessible. This strategy is computationally distinguished from associative learning methods that rely on direct observation, by its use of inference from indirect evidence. In twenty-three healthy human subjects, we isolated effects of first-hand experience, other people’s choices, and the mediating effect of their confidence, on decision-making and neural correlates of value within ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). Value derived from first-hand experience and other people’s choices (irrespective of confidence) were indiscriminately represented across vmPFC. However, value computed from agent choices weighted by their associated confidence was represented with specificity for ventromedial area 10. This pattern corresponds to shifts of connectivity and overlapping cognitive processes along a posterior-anterior vmPFC axis. Task behavior and self-reported self-reliance for decision-making in other social contexts correlated. The tendency to conform in other social contexts corresponded to increased activation in cortical regions previously shown to respond to social conflict in proportion to subsequent conformity (Campbell-Meiklejohn et al., 2010). The tendency to self-monitor predicted a selectively enhanced response to accordance with others in the right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ). The findings anatomically decompose vmPFC value representations according to computational requirements and provide biological insight into the social transmission of preference and reassurance gained from the confidence of others.


Decades of research have provided evidence that ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) signals the satisfaction we expect from imminent actions. Yet, we have a surprisingly modest understanding of the organization of value across this substantial and varied region. This study finds that using cues of the reliability of other peoples’ knowledge to enhance expectation of personal success generates value correlates that are anatomically distinct from those concurrently computed from direct, personal experience. This suggests that representation of decision values in vmPFC is sub-organized according to the underlying computation, consistent with what we know about the anatomical heterogeneity of the region. These results also provide insight into the observational learning process by which someone else’s confidence can sway and reassure our choices.

“Independent Neural Computation of Value from Other People’s Confidence” by Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, Arndis Simonsen, Chris D. Frith and Nathaniel D. Daw in Journal of Neuroscience. Published online December 9 2016 doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4490-15.2016