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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Minority Influence: Why Black Lives Matter Matters

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Image from Socially Urban

Minorities are a paradoxical thing. Even though they are composed of a small amount of people, they can have incredible influence. Many major advancements and legal movements have been spear-headed by minorities, ranging from the followers of Copernicus spreading the word of heliocentrism, to teetotalers advocating for alcohol prohibition, and ultimately amending the constitution, in the U.S.. Few great achievements come without challenge, and equal treatment for black citizens under the law appears to be one of those things. We know from history that small groups of people can accomplish big things, which is why it’s important to keep the Black Lives Matter movement alive for change to occur in penal and legal overreach.

For decades, social psychologists have studied minority influence, which, as you may have guessed, is the capacity for a small group of people with an unpopular opinion to change beliefs.1,2 In any given social issue, the dominant group, or those in power, have the most social influence over the target population, the people the group is hoping to influence. But minority groups gain traction by challenging the dominant group, presenting themselves as innovative alternatives to the status quo.3 Research has largely found that opinion change caused by the majority is often temporary and public, whereas opinion changes caused by the minority are indirect and persistent.4,5,6 Majorities inspire public conformity, but minorities foster true attitude change. Unfortunately, privately held opinions don’t help to propel minority movements, but they may be a better reflection of where someone will allocate his or her voting power, alone in a cubicle in an elementary school gym.

In addition to being influential, people who are in minority groups are liked by others. One study planted minority influencers in teams over the course of a 10 week study, and found that teams with members that advocated for the minority position improved their divergent thinking and came up with more original products than control groups without a minority influencer.7 Minority influencers were also given higher ratings by peers, indicating that group members valued the minority contributions.7 Since we know that groupthink can lead to terrible decision-making, it is not that surprising that team members would value teammates who help to point out potential pitfalls. However, it is surprising that those minority members were better liked than people who shared the majority opinion, giving us hope that social change doesn’t have to equal social conflict.

Interrupting Bernie Sanders’ Seattle campaign event earlier this month may have been controversial, but it has helped to keep the Black Lives Matter movement in the news. Only once there is enough tension will the dominant group be forced to answer to the movement, and Black Lives Matter is obviously fueled by passionate, young people who are willing to be persistent in changing attitudes. Research does indicate that Black Lives Matter may benefit from a more centralized operating structure, as consistency of the message of the group, as well as the confidence with which attempts are made to convey the message, are important factors for influencing majority members.8

Individually, we can all do our part to open our minds and hearts to the message of minority movements, and allow ourselves to be guided by the evidence at hand over political dogma. The Black Lives Matter movement has already had an incredible influence on the political climate of the 2016 election. As long as they continue to challenge the status quo with consistency and credibility, attitude change is all but inevitable.

  1. Maass, A., & Clark, R. D. (1984). Hidden impact of minorities: Fifteen years of minority influence research. Psychological Bulletin, 95(3), 428.
  1. Moscovici, S., & Lage, E. (1976). Studies in social influence III: Majority versus minority influence in a group. European Journal of Social Psychology, 6(2), 149-174.
  1. Mugny, G., & Pérez, J. A. (1991). The social psychology of minority influence. Cambridge University Press.
  1. Maass, A., & Clark, R. D. (1983). Internalization versus compliance: Differential processes underlying minority influence and conformity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 13(3), 197-215.
  1. Nemeth, C. J. (1986). Differential contributions of majority and minority influence. Psychological review, 93(1), 23.
  1. Moscovici, S., & Personnaz, B. (1980). Studies in social influence: V. Minority influence and conversion behavior in a perceptual task. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16(3), 270-282.
  1. Dyne, L., & Saavedra, R. (1996). A naturalistic minority influence experiment: Effects on divergent thinking, conflict and originality in work‐groups. British Journal of Social Psychology, 35(1), 151-167.
  1. Nemeth, C., & Wachtler, J. (1974). Creating the perceptions of consistency and confidence: A necessary condition for minority influence. Sociometry, 529-540.

The Salem Witch Trials: Groupthink at its worst

In honor of Halloween and all things occult, I wanted to explore a historical event I was morbidly fascinated with as a child: the Salem Witch Trials. When I was younger, I couldn’t get my hands on enough novels and non-fiction books on the subject. I read The Crucible and watched the movie, and I was also fortunate enough to have relatives who lived in Salem, MA, so I got to visit most years around Halloween. While in Salem, I would walk through the cemeteries where the alleged witches had been laid to rest and read their tombstones. These ancient tombstones actually listed the method used to kill the accused. I remember being completely engrossed in the event the more I learned about it—I couldn’t get past the swiftness of the accusations, the unfairness of the trials, the conformity, and the upturned power hierarchy of the Salem community. I didn’t necessarily think of it in those specific terms at the time, but in retrospect, my nascent social psychological wheels were turning.

What exactly happened during the Salem Witch Trials? What perpetuated the mass hysteria? Why did it take so long to stop?

Lithograph of Salem Witch Trials, 1892, by Joseph Baker

Actually, research on groupthink suggests that what happened in Salem Village* wasn’t all that unusual; terrible, yes, but surprising? Perhaps not. A few factors combined to allow for the perfect storm of the Salem Trials.

Groupthink1 is a way of thinking characterized by an excessive emphasis on group cohesion and solidarity. Often, group harmony is prioritized over making an accurate judgment, allowing for important information to be ignored. Groupthink is most likely to occur when the group is highly cohesive, isolated, stressed, has poor decision-making procedures, and a forceful leader. Nearly all of these factors existed in Salem Village during the winter of 1692, the time leading up to and including the witch trials.

Highly cohesive group and group isolation. The Salem villagers were Puritans, tightly knit together by their religious beliefs, including fear of the Devil’s work. Because of their religious convictions, recent attacks by Native Americans, and tension with the wealthier Salem Town, the Salem villagers were distrustful of outsiders, leaving them to rely primarily on each other for support.

Forceful leader. Reverend Samuel Parris, the first ordained minister of Salem Village, ruled strictly and was known for his greedy nature. Editorial note: he doesn’t seem like the type of person who would allow people to speak their mind.

High stress. The 1692 winter was a particularly harsh one, which strained Salem Village’s resources and increased their reliance on Salem Town. Adding to the strain was a number of displaced people from King William’s War, who landed in Salem Village, and a smallpox epidemic.

Poor decision-making. The trial process, a term I use loosely, allowed testimony about dreams and visions to be included, despite opposition from the respected minister Cotton Mather; likely, his voice just wasn’t loud enough to stop the momentum yet. Female children as young as four years old who were connected to accused older women, like Dorothy Good, daughter of Sarah Good, were questioned and thought to have confessed. These are just a few of the ways in which poor decision-making was employed.

So, the groundwork was there. And when groupthink emerged, it did so violently with all of its accompanying symptoms:

Belief in the moral correctness of the group. Need I remind you that these were deeply religious people? They prayed every day and considered themselves to be the elect. In other words, they believed they had been predestined for heaven, chosen uniquely by the God they believed in. As K. David Goss put it in Daily Life during the Salem Witch Trials, their Puritan faith was all-encompassing. These religious beliefs contributed to a lot of self-censorship and the pressure to conform, particularly among women, who were expected to aspire to the ideal virtuous woman as described in the bible (see Goss’s book for more). This pressure to conform and to limit personal beliefs likely increased significantly once accusations were being made, lest someone turn an accusation on someone who dared to speak her mind.

Considering the ripening groupthink conditions of the stressed and isolated place of Salem Village, the mass hysteria and frenzy of the Salem Witch Trials wasn’t completely unexpected, at least in hindsight. That it can be explained doesn’t detract from the horror, death, and upheaval that occurred. And community members of Salem did eventually put a stop to the madness, perhaps because the stress was unsustainable and damaged the group cohesiveness. The diminished cohesiveness may have allowed an opening for some powerful community members to feel comfortable enough to speak up. A public apology was eventually made in 1697 by Judge Sewall, who had overseen many of the trials, but it was too little, too late. Groupthink had left a permanent mark.

Groupthink can, and does, occur today, too. It can be avoided by having an impartial leader, being willing to seek outside opinions, creating subgroups to make decisions separately, and seeking anonymous opinions.2


*The place where the witch trials occurred was actually Salem Village, present-day Danvers, and was established several miles from Salem Town, now present-day Salem. See http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/Witch.html for more information.

1,2  Janis, I.L. (1972). Victims of groupthink: A psychological study of foreign policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.