I originally posted this over a year ago, but the lessons in it and the content are well worth revisiting --julie
Imagine that you are shown a card with a line on it, and given three options, and are asked "which line best matches the one on the card?"
You'd choose "C," right?
Now imagine that you are the last in a line of people answering this question out loud, and every other person in the room has chosen "B."
What do you do? The answer, once again, sounds easy: "I'd still choose 'C.'" Except that for a lot of people, that's not the answer. About one out of three respondents consistently went with the majority and nearly three quarters conformed with the group at least once. Some did this because they questioned their own answers. Some did this because they didn't want to diverge from the group. Others did this because they didn't want to "sound stupid."
Today we'll be exploring Solomon Asch's work on conformity and what it teaches us about the power of conformity.
So really, this is an incredibly simple experiment: get a group of people into a room and tell them you'll be giving them some questions to answer. Put them around a table, like shown on the right.
Then give them questions like the one above, or (my personal favorite):
What you do not tell them is that everyone at that table but the little red dot at the end is a confederate. I.e., they're part of the experimenter's team and they have been instructed to give the wrong answer and give the wrong answer consistently.
Here's what Asch learned:
- conformity occurred across gender and class lines;
- even people who did not conform showed serious discomfort when giving the correct answer;
- having a single confederate dissent from the group greatly decreased conformity;
- those who conformed often found excuses for doing so: said they didn't understand the question or had poor eyesight. Few blamed conformity or other group members for their conformity;
Let's take a few of these in turn:
- even people who did not conform showed serious discomfort:
it's amazing how much of our social interactions influence our attitudes and perceptions of who we are. And people who are not so interest in the truth as propagating their misinformation are well aware of this. There is a reason that Bush administration officials work in talking points. If you keep hearing people say "the form of a mushroom cloud" for days on end, we tend to believe it, not because it's true, but because, on a social level, we're more comfortable when we agree with people;
- those who conformed often found excuses:
this ties into the concepts of diffusion of responsibility and cognitive dissonance I've discussed before. We want to conform but, more importantly, we want to think that our reasons for doing so are for some other reason. So we have cognitive dissonance: that niggling little sense inside ourselves that something doesn't match, even if we can't articulate what that something is. So, instead, we pretend to ourselves that we're conforming because we didn't understand the issue, or we didn't perceive the lines properly.
But the key thing is that having everyone else give the wrong answer gives impetus for the subjects to do so as well, but it leaves them with more cognitive dissonance -- "I gave the wrong answer, but I'm not the sort of person who would give the wrong answer just because everyone else does" gets transformed, internally to, giving the wrong answer because "I didn't understand the question" or "my eyesight was poor." We create these ready-made excuses to avoid responsibility for our own behavior;
- having just one person dissent greatly reduces conformity:
this is crucial, and it's big.
If we want truth to matter, dissent is important. This is why those few voices opposing the invasion and occupation of Iraq at the time it started were essential. It's not that we were going to change anything in the short term. It's that having those voices out there to keep that niggling thought in our mind that what so many people are saying, even if consistent, is flawed. It took a few years but consistent dissent paid off.
It didn't even have to be about knowing the right answer. Just consistent questioning of the party line was essential. The press, as a whole, failed us back then. The didn't dissent, nor did they ask important questions. It was up to the blogs to handle the dissent;
Think about diffusion of responsibility again: having people in authority gives us cover when we, as a country, commit crimes against humanity.
Let me say right now, by the way that, contrary to popular belief, I don't think Americans are stupid. We are, however, complacent and we're conformists. So we plead ignorance:
I didn't know that that was torture.
Everyone kept telling me we don't torture.
If there were torture going on, I'm sure someone would put a stop to it.
It's not our fault. Someone else is doing it. Hey, let's talk about EYE-leeg-AHL immigration instead. Didn't you hear those folks are stealing our jobs?
So we ignore the issues, because our authorities are telling us that something else is going on. Or we ignore them because everyone else is.
But we do know better than that.
And we can, as a people, be better than that.
So-- outside of the blogosphere-- outside of our personal ramblings and writings, what can we do to give people that dissent they need to give them the permission to look beyond the obvious? What can we do to push one another to think beyond the simple?
I have no easy answers to this, but I'd love to hear what the rest of you have to say.