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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.

Previously, I've written about diffusion of responsibility and the use of language to subvert morality.  There are ties into that work here, but first I want to give some background:

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):

   + 2

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:

  1. 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;

  2. 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;

  3. 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.

Originally posted to Where the Waters Run Free on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 03:21 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I was in a large group in one such experiment (15+ / 0-)

    and even though I was the only one who didn't conform, I was very vocal about it to the group and why I wasn't.  Instead of generating more nonconformity they actually banded against me.  When they found out at the end that I was the only one that was right they would not look at me, I was still an outsider even if I was right.  That's why I come to DK.  There are a good many nonconformists here.

    I am the fellow citizen of every being that thinks; my country is Truth. ~Alphonse de Lamartine, "Marseillaise of Peace," 1841

    by notdarkyet on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 03:33:12 PM PST

    •  Reminds me of a conversation I had with (11+ / 0-)

      a couple of FBI employees a year or so after Colleen Rowley went public.  They had banded together against her and resented the fact that department higher-ups had decided that the situation was too politically charged to fire her.

      The neo-liberal, corporate, military and MSM doesn't have to eliminate real liberals to peaceably get their way, they just have to keep our numbers down in the 10% range where we will have no impact.  Other than to say "told ya" after the fact when it does know good.  


      Bring Our JOBS and Troops Home NOW!

      by Marie on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 04:00:09 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  *That's* the problem right there... (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Marie, mint julep, texasmom, notdarkyet

      The way the people who are wrong band together against the people who are right.

      Thankfully, there are quite a few of us nonconformists.  If the sheep would just conform to the people who are right, the world would be OK.

      Read pp. 1-7 of Krugman's _The Great Unraveling_ (available from Google Books). NOW.

      by neroden on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 04:37:02 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  That would presuppose a couple of things (0+ / 0-)

        That we always know when we are right or wrong and in some cases there are NO white and black to issues.  And it presupposes that people want to conform to something that is "right".  I don't think bigots really think bigotry is right but I think they enjoy the "banding together" with other bigots and enjoy their code words and not so coded words in expressing their bigotry.

        And sometimes it is a frickin' relief NOT to be right all the frickin' time. And STILL be able to be a non-conformist!

  •  I can tell you from experience as the dissenter, (9+ / 0-)

    that dissent is much harder than most are willing to endure.

    In simple examples like those you've written about and where the answer is plainly obvious, it is true that one person's dissent does convince others to join in and state what they know to be correct. But when the issue is murky, or the consequences of dissent more severe, the results are that almost everybody sticks to their original erroneous position.

    "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." - Voltaire

    by Greyhound on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 04:02:31 PM PST

    •  Of course anyone is uncomfortable dissenting... (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Marie, opinionated, vahana, notdarkyet

      After all, you're surrounded by a group of deranged people who believe something false, insist on continuing to believe it even against the evidence you've provided, and are banding together against you.  They'll probably be inclined to kill you as a heretic.

      The conformists can easily be led by bad, dangerous people -- and so of course it's uncomfortable dissenting.

      Read pp. 1-7 of Krugman's _The Great Unraveling_ (available from Google Books). NOW.

      by neroden on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 04:38:57 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I did a version of Asch's experiment with kids. (7+ / 0-)

    I made large cards like the one you show and went to art classes in elementary private schools, including Montessori and Quaker schools.  I told the kids that I was doing an experiment on how we see things and asked them to put their answers on an answer sheet.  But most of the sheets had previously been "filled out" implicitly by kids at other schools, approximating the confederates without causing public stress to the kids.  I also had some controls in each class by giving them completely blank answer sheets. The teacher was in on it and we all had a discussion afterwards about conformity.

    Yeah, the conformity rate was pretty high.  I didn't have enough subjects to see whether particular educational approaches produced greater or lesser conformity.

  •  Yay, social psychology! (6+ / 0-)

    Conformity is fascinating.  One thread in many studies is that people will often prefer to risk possible death than embrace probable embarrassment.

    Soon on DK4: Chit Cheat and Undisputed Facts!
    Daily Kos has the same main ingredient as Soylent Green!

    by Seneca Doane on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 04:20:40 PM PST

  •  Great diary--Let us not forget about misdirection (8+ / 0-)

    A lot of people get misdirected and fail to see what is front of their faces.

    If anyone hasn't seen the gorilla in the basketball video, check it out. I was totally fooled by it. You are told to count the times the basketball is passed, so you do. Then when you watch the video again, you realize a guy in a gorilla suit is walking between the players and you never saw him. A guy in a gorilla suit just walking around and you never saw it!

    Our current media too often counts the passes and almost always misses the gorilla in the room. Not surprising that people who are not in the media get equally misdirected, especially when it allows them to ignore that cognitive dissonance you referred to.

    We need training for gorilla spotting is what.

    Outside of a book, a dog is a man's best friend. Inside of a book it's too dark to read. Groucho Marx

    by marketgeek on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 04:33:20 PM PST

  •  Wow. Julie this is wonderful~! (5+ / 0-)

    The Center Cannot Hold - Rekindling the Radical Imagination March 21, 2010

       The final plenary at the 2010 LEFT FORUM conference in New York features Francis Fox Piven, Brian Jones, Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky. The presentation begins with a memorial for the beloved historian, Howard Zinn, and proceeds to the theme of the 2010 conference: "The Center Cannot Hold - Rekindling the Radical Imagination."

    You might enjoy this as it speaks to those who seek truth w/o the need to "belong" and I so do love them.

    The entire program can been seen here:

    Rekindling the Radical Imagination - Piven, Jones, Roy & Chomsky

    "It's hell to pay when the fiddler stops." ~Leonard Cohen

    by Annalize5 on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 05:05:55 PM PST

  •  Society Rewards Conformity (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    You can discuss this in an academic circumstance, but that is a relatively small timespan.

    In a business situation I would actually argue B could very well be the "right" answer to give, depending on the company's preference.

    I use to be a man, who would stand firmly by line C, but I've since learned to accept that line B will have to do.

    Even here on dkos, you'll see incorrect or incomplete information asserted in diaries, some of which appear on the rec list.

    If you wish to advance inside the dkos bubble, you should probably just tip and rec the diary.  Writing a diary contrary to the conventional wisdom is likely to result in a series a flaming comments.

    The age of enlightenment is over.  We no longer seek truth, but rather quest for consensus.

    Who am I to teach someone any different?  Moral flexibility has become a prerequisite in our society.  I may disagree with my son's teacher, but for his sake I advise him to adjust his strategy to achieve  harmony.

    •  I had a hard time learning that. (4+ / 0-)

      But you are right to give him that advice as long as he knows why he's doing it.  The experiment I was in was a recreation of what happened in Nazi Germany.  It is harder to go for harmony when your ethical foundation will not let you.  It goes something like, a virtuous man has no choice but to be virtuous.  But you get what I mean.  There are some truths that must be stood up for even to death because you have no choice.  Not everyone sees it that way of course.

      I am the fellow citizen of every being that thinks; my country is Truth. ~Alphonse de Lamartine, "Marseillaise of Peace," 1841

      by notdarkyet on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 06:01:56 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  This is where self awareness is critical (0+ / 0-)

        I always hear the term Machiavellian used in a negative sense, but I think it gets attacked unfairly.

        It is perfectly rational to see an unethical action in the context of a greater ethical framework.  Indeed any mature ethical foundation must allow for a "greatest good" evaluation.

        It seems like the political culture is moving away from the allowance of moral relativity, despite a world of ever increasing moral complexity.

        I would say a modern virtuous man must always know virtue, but act based on the consequence of any given action.

        Dying for a truth is only meaningful, if the death itself has an intended consequence consistent with the virtue in question.

        A suicide bomber may be ideologically flawless according to your standard, but would miserably fail mine.

    •  I came back because I was thinking.. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Marie, Dr Teeth

      about your son.  Having always been a radical and nonconformist and also a teacher, when young people came to me angry or upset about something, I have told them to chose their battles wisely; not every fight is worth fighting and to save their energy for the important fights.  It usually works.  Many times it doesn't hurt anyone or anything to give in or go along.

      I am the fellow citizen of every being that thinks; my country is Truth. ~Alphonse de Lamartine, "Marseillaise of Peace," 1841

      by notdarkyet on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 06:32:48 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I tell my son he can keep his own mind (0+ / 0-)

        He can always think what he wants, but not every action has to reflect what he thinks.  There is a huge difference between conformity in action and conformity in thought.

        The first one shows social awareness.  The second one scares the living shit out of me.

    •  This leads into the related area (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Marie, Dr Teeth, Julie Waters

      of groupthink, another important area of social psychology. Irving Janis discovered that of all the people who signed off on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, not a single one of them actually believed the plan could work. Yet they went along with it anyway.

      If you Google "headache brain tumor", you will come away convinced that your headache is actually cancer—Seth Mnookin

      by ebohlman on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 06:58:18 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Very interesting. A question... (4+ / 0-) write, conformity occurred across gender and class lines, but what about cultural lines. We know that Japanese are mostly raised, as the cliche has it, not to be the nail that sticks up. Are the French more conformist on average than Malaysians? For that matter, are French Canadians more conformist than English Canadians? Although Asch's exploration of this rings true in my experience, I'm always a little reluctant to accept a study as broadly accurate measures of human behavior when large swaths of the human realm are not included in a study.

    Don't tell me what you believe. Tell me what you do and I'll tell you what you believe.

    by Meteor Blades on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 05:58:57 PM PST

  •  Brilliant diary -- (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Julie Waters

    -- and needed right on Daily Kos to study social behaviors.
    Can I follow you on DK4?

    -- And fyi, this is for not2plato -- read this diary and you will have your answer as to why I write my diaries on atheism.

    "Do not be satisfied with stories that come before you. Unfold your own myth". -- Rumi

    by toilpress on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 06:40:35 PM PST

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