You're told entrepreneurs are loners, and that visionaries go it alone. To be successful, you've heard you must leave naysayers behind and surround yourself with others who think like you. Is there really any truth to this? What's the science behind why the right crowd can propel us ahead, while the wrong crowd holds us back?

A straight line can shrink or grow

When Solomon Asch, a 1950s Swarthmore College psychologist, asked a group of volunteers to estimate the length of a vertical black line on a plain white card, he made an intriguing observation. He found that each person's estimate varied depending on what everyone else thought. A person surrounded by people who overestimated its length overestimated it too. The same was true for underestimation. People literally saw the line differently depending on who was around them.

How can a black line actually look different depending on the opinions of others? Asch was simply confirming what polymath Gustave Le Bon had written over half a century before, in his seminal treatise The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, a work reputed to have been read by Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler. Le Bon wrote that in a crowd "the sentiments and ideas of all the persons take one and the same direction and their conscious personality vanishes."

What's happening in your brain

When you hold an opinion, an idea, or a desire that matches those of people around you, your brain's reward pathway gets tickled and you feel good.

If, on the other hand, your opinion, idea, or desire is different from the ones of people around you, a part of your brain that fires when you feel pain (the anterior insula) gets activated. When this happens, you do one of two things:

  1. Option A -- You pretend to agree with others but continue to secretly hold on to your own thoughts.
  2. Option B -- Your brain actively changes how your think and molds your innermost thoughts to align with those of your crowd.

A recent paper suggests you may be using option B more often than you think.

A network within your brain (involving the medial frontal cortex and anterior insula) monitors "errors" in how you are conforming with people around you. It becomes active as soon as you and your crowd disagree on something and heralds your brain's efforts to try to reduce this disagreement gap.

One study has shown how this network becomes active before people change their innermost beliefs to match the beliefs they outwardly pretend to hold.

What this means for you

Even if you have a brilliant, world-changing, innovative streak inside you, you're at risk of abandoning your entrepreneurial ideas, changing your beliefs, and surrendering to the pessimism of naysayers if you're surrounded by them.

In contrast, if you surround yourself with optimistic, energetic entrepreneurs who aspire to succeed, you're likely to change your innermost thoughts to think like them and become more entrepreneurial, even if you've never entertained entrepreneurial ideas before.

If your crowd can change your innermost thoughts, it can change who you are. When you pick people you want to be around, you're choosing the person you want to become -- choose wisely.