Conformity: Standing up means standing out

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Image of Asch experiment from Simply Psychology

If everyone was jumping off a bridge, would you jump too? Social psychology research suggests you might. Social conformity is a powerful force. So much so that social psychologists generally endorse the idea that people like to stand out, but only in a good way. We want to be recognized for our unique, desirable qualities or achievements, but we don’t want to be caught wearing clothing that has gone out of style, or being ignorant of the latest cultural trends. We want to be seen as individuals, except in ways that would make us seem weird and different and…other. Unsurprisingly, this desire to fit in appears to drive conformity.

asch_conformity

Image from Age of the Sage

In the early 1950s, Solomon Asch conducted his famous conformity experiments. In his experimental paradigm, he had participants complete a line judgment task with several confederates, experimenters posing as naïve participants.1 In each judgment, one line was clearly the match for the comparison line, however, after a few correct judgments, the group of confederates starts to unanimously choose an incorrect answer.1 Even though about a quarter of the subjects still gave correct judgments every time, 76% of the sample was swayed by the incorrect majority at least once, with 27% of participants conforming on 8 to 12 out of 12 trials.1 The group of people who conform most or all of the time is slightly larger than the group that never conforms. Sadly, these holdouts seem to be behavioral outliers. The rest of us feel uncomfortable repeatedly sticking our social neck’s out.

Asch, like many social psychologists of his era, was influenced by the atrocities of World War II, and sought to explain how normal people could subscribe to an extremist movement, and how they could come to be so fearful of standing up to the mounting threat of genocide. The conformity experiments use a simple paradigm of no social importance. It asks participants to make a judgment that should be clear to anyone who can see. When participants are asked to make their own judgments by writing them down, they get the judgments right 100% of the time.1 But the desire to fit in with others is so strong that most people give in at least once when there’s a unanimous, vocal majority.

There are a whole lot of reasons why conformity is bad. One is that groupthink, a state in which groups exhibit certain characteristics in order to achieve consensus at all costs, is partially fostered by a silencing of dissenting opinions.2 And groupthink is pretty famous for leading to bad decision-making, like the choice to launch the Challenger space shuttle against expert advice.3 One person refusing to relent can go a long way to preventing groups from making decisions without considering the full extent of consequences. In the Asch experiments, for instance, having only 1 of the confederates disagree with the group answer dropped participant error rates by over 2/3rds.4 Seeing just one other person stand up to the crowd gives people the courage to do the same.

In a time when there is so much divisive rhetoric about which human beings “belong” in which places, and in which we sometimes bring harm to others in hopes that they will not harm us, conformity is a threat we must remain vigilant against. Whether we are scared to speak up when others move towards solutions that ignore our values, or we are silent while our fellow citizens are targeted, we are contributing to a culture of conformity. Remember that it only takes one person doing to the right thing to make other people do the same. That one person can be you.

  1. Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological monographs: General and applied70(9), 1.
  2. Esser, J. K. (1998). Alive and well after 25 years: A review of groupthink research. Organizational behavior and human decision processes73(2), 116-141.
  3. Esser, J. K., & Lindoerfer, J. S. (1989). Groupthink and the space shuttle Challenger accident: Toward a quantitative case analysis. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making2(3), 167-177.
  4. Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Readings about the social animal193, 17-26.
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