As you may have noticed, I have a fondness for psychological experiments that deal with our social interactions and the way that we feel about ourselves.

And while some may accuse me of using office politics as a loose facade to discuss social interactions (you know who you are), my defence is this: we spend upwards of 8 hours a day, at least 5 days a week, in a work environment. Where else are we going to be social creatures if not there?

Today, I want to talk about putting necks on the line.

The Conformity Experiments of Solomon Asch

A mental image: picture yourself walking into a room filled with people.

You have been asked to take part in a test of visual ability.

You receive this card (without the commentary at the bottom), and you’re asked to choose which line on the right-hand card matches the length of the line on the left:

The answer, obviously, is “C”*.
*Unless you’re part of the 2% of the population that apparently can’t get that right on the first attempt – but I’m going to put that down to sheer disinterest.

Now imagine that each participant in the room is asked to share their answers with the rest of the group (you’re sitting at the end of the table, so you’ll be going last, it seems). And the first two times these types of cards are handed out, everyone gives the same response: “C”.

Only, on the third occasion, the first participant stands up and announces that the answer is “A”! You scoff inwardly, and shake your head at his obvious blindness. The fool.

Then, to your complete amazement, the second guy stands up and also announces that the answer is “A”. As does the lady after him!

One by one, the rest of the group gives “A” as their answer.

Your amazement turns to panic. What if…what if you‘re the one with the visual disability? But surely not. You agreed with everyone on the first two sets of cards – and it’s as plain as day! So you quickly re-examine the card. You squint your eyes…

Finally, the attention turns to you.

And your answer is?

I mean, you want to say that your answer would still be “C”.

But would it be, though?

The Results

Each participant in the experiment was subjected to the above card & answer arrangement 18 times (that is, each card distribution and answer announcement was termed a “trial”, and there were 18 trials conducted for each participant). The other “participants” in the group were actually actors that were in on the experiment; and their answers were based on a set of instructions issued to them by the experimenter.

In 12 out of the 18 trials, the rest of the room was instructed¬†to give the same incorrect answer. These were known as the “critical” trials, because this was when the real participant had the dilemma of conforming or breaking away from the crowd.

Under all that pressure, 75% of the actual participants gave the incorrect answer at least once. And when the results of the critical trials were aggregated, the participants caved to majority opinion a third of the time.

Just to be explicitly clear: we are not talking here about some complex question. We are talking about a simple set of three lines where one answer is obviously correct to the naked eye. There is no thought process or justification required. Just “which of these is the same as that?”

What If You’re Not Alone

Asch then repeated the experiment, but this time, he asked one of the actors to give the correct answer when the rest of the group was wrong. Just the presence of one supportive voice dropped the level of conformity down to 5-10% of the time.

Interestingly (and, I think, more importantly), Asch also conducted a variation where he asked one of the actors to give a different, but still incorrect, answer to that of the rest of the actors. That is: the rest of the actors might say “A” while the non-conforming actor would give the answer “B”.

And this had exactly the same effect on conformity as having just one other person give the right answer.

What To Take Away From This

  1. Most of us are lemmings some of the time
  2. Some of us are lemmings most of the time
  3. But you should always voice an alternative opinion if you have an alternative opinion, even if you’re wrong.
  4. Because your non-conformity with the crowd might just give the guy with the right answer the courage to break with conformity as well.

And if you want to watch a short clip of the experiment, here it is.