Your school is having students take their annual vision test, but to save time, they’re having multiple students go at once. In each group of four, students will go down a line and verbally give their answers. You’re at the end of the line, which means you give your answer last. The vision test is fairly uneventful for the most part as you all answer what letter is currently being shown. Then as you’re shown what’s clearly the letter “O,” something strange happens: the first student labels it a “Q.” Then the second says, “Q” as well. So does the third. It’s now your turn: what letter do you call out?
Do you stick to your answer, declaring your independence, or do you yield to group conformity? If you yield, do you truly believe that the rest of the students are right, or do you just not want to stand out? Dr. Solomon Asch found answers to such queries in what would later be called the Asch Conformity Experiments.
The Asch Conformity Experiments
The Asch Conformity Experiments were instrumental in discovering much of what we know today about the pressures of group conformity. Asch and his colleagues studied if and how individuals give into or remain strong against group majority and the effects of the majority on beliefs and opinions. Many variations of his experiments have been conducted since, examining the effects of task importance, gender, race, age, and culture on the results. Thus, it can be argued that Asch inspired much of the research conducted on conformity and independence.
In 1951 at Swarthmore College, Dr. Solomon Asch conducted his first conformity experiment using white male college students. Groups of eight students would be shown a large card with a line on it, along with another card with lines labeled A, B, and C. Participants were asked to verbally answer which one of these lines matched the example line in length. No optical illusions were in play here. If participants were asked to complete the task all alone, they correctly answered practically every time.
Only one member of each group was an actual test subject. The rest were actors. Groups were asked to complete 18 trials of this “perception task.” For the first two trials, the actors would give the clearly correct answer, but for the remaining 12 trials, the actors would unanimously vote for a wrong answer.
While a majority of test subjects’ responses remained correct in the actor condition, a significant minority of over one third conformed to the actors’ wrong answers. Further investigation found that only 25% of subjects always defied majority opinion, 5% were always swayed by the group, and the remaining 70% conformed on some trials.
Interviews with the test subjects revealed that all of them had significant doubts on the legitimacy of the group’s answers, regardless of whether they yielded to them or not. Participants who conformed on one or more trials did so out of either informational conformity, i.e. they began to believe that the group must be right because so many of them were in agreement, or normative conformity, i.e. they still believed their own assessments were right but went along with the group so as to not stand out.
Despite the fact that only a minority of the total responses were wrong, a majority of subjects gave into group pressure at some point during the experiment. In these trials, participants could clearly see what the correct answer was, yet almost all of them felt uncomfortable, nervous, and doubtful about going against the group. Imagine how much harder it must be to go against the majority on a less clear-cut issue, like who to vote for in an election or how to solve infrastructure problems. Furthermore, the actors making up the majority weren’t trusted officials, close friends, or family members. Sticking to a minority opinion when the group consists of loved ones or respected and trusted authorities is no easy feat. Even in groups with only four students, three people unanimously agreeing generated the same amount of pressure for conformity. Majorities, no matter their size or makeup, are persuasive.
Now, it might not seem particularly dangerous to give into majority opinion so long as you are only displaying normative conformity. After all, you still know you’re right. Yet what good are beliefs if they’re not acted upon? Bad decisions don’t cease to be wrong just because you recognize them as such. If you’re going to vote for a popular yet corrupt official, go along with group bullying, or steal because your friends insist you should, you’re still committing immoral acts. Your reasoning for doing so doesn’t absolve your guilt. Conforming to an incorrect majority still makes you incorrect, regardless of why you decide to conform.
Every participant, whether they conformed or not, doubted the accuracy of the group’s judgment. If you really think you’re right, stick to your initial judgement. It won’t be easy, but making a decision you yourself are proud of is more important. Who knows, maybe you’ll inspire others to join your side.