Solomon Asch and Conformity in our Lives

Whether we like it or not, we all conform. And to add insult to injury, we all conform in the same way. A by now famous, and perhaps overly discussed set of experiments, demonstrates that perfectly: the Solomon Asch experiments (1)(2).

Take a few people, ask them a question, and then have them say their answers out-loud together; except, make sure the first 3 people to speak all give the wrong answer, and then let the last person answer however they want. That is the premise of the experiment.

Participants were given three lines to pick from. Short, medium, and long, and these were labelled A, B, and C. They were then asked to identify the longest line. Easy enough. Now, however, when it came time to say their choices out-loud, things weren’t so straightforward.

Solomon Asch Experiment Lines

The participants were put into a room with three other people who were pretending to also be participants. The purpose of these pretenders was to provide, out-loud, wrong answers. And they did.

When the time came to provide answers, the three pretenders went first, and the pretenders all provided wrong answers. As a result, 30% of the time, when the genuine participant also provided an answer, they provided the wrong answer; in addition to that, of those incorrect responses, 75% were in alignment with the majority’s wrong answer.

What does this mean? Well, it is evidence of a few things.

First, we clearly conform to the crowd, even when things are obviously wrong. Crowds have a massive impact on what we think, whether we like it or not. Stopping the opinion of the crowd from influencing us proves to be a difficult task.

Second, crowds can cause us to be uncertain of ourselves, and as a result, and thirdly, we conform to their opinion because of our own uncertainty. Crowds are like a walking book of skepticism, if there is a difference between our opinion and the crowds, we begin to self-doubt. And when we are in the clutches of uncertainty, we look to what others are doing, so we can conform to that.

But what does this all look like inside our daily lives? What are some examples of conformity in our lives?

Conformity in our Daily Lives

A good example of us conforming to something which is wrong, within our daily lives, is political wrong think.

We surround ourselves with different groups of people all the time, and these groups of people do not necessarily have the same views as us in regards to politics. So, when we find ourselves amidst a group of people who have differing political views, what do we do when political discussions arise?

Well, we just adopt the groups opinion. You think taxing the rich is a bad idea? If you hang out with those who think otherwise, you are far more willing to agree that taxing the rich is a good idea. To avoid having an opinion different than the group, in order to avoid political wrong think, we adopt the opinion of the crowd; which means, for our case, taxing the rich.

Or, if you are trying to reach a conclusion about a trial, and you happen to be the last person to give your answer, then chances are that your answer is likely to agree with the majority.

We agree with crowds all the time in ordinary life, even when we think differently about the topic in private.

Moreover, not only do we agree with majority opinion, but we also self-doubt ourselves. For example, as one experiment demonstrates (3), when an emergency situation occurs, we look at the behaviours of others to determine how we ought to respond.

To elaborate, the experiment had 8 actors and 1 genuine participant. They were all sitting inside a waiting room. After five minutes of waiting, the researchers pumped smoke into the room, so as to mimic a fire. As long as the other 8 actors remained seated and ignored the smoke, the 1 genuine participant, despite being visibly concerned, remained calm and did not move from their seat. So, even if we are in a burning building, if others are calm and not acting on the situation, we conform to their calmness.

Our deepest concerns for safety can be thrown entirely into self-doubt, because we have such a high-regard for the opinions of the crowd.

Lastly, when we are uncertain about something, we tend to conform to the crowds opinions. So, take, for example, a news event which we know very little about. And then spread that event all over social media. What will happen is people, us included, will conform to the popular opinion on social media.

Say we know nothing about American foreign policy, and we witness a tragic event happen across the world; the first popular opinion, irrespective of political bias, which arises is likely going to be the opinion we adopt. Why? because we are uncertain about the event, and that opinion is the popular opinion. We conform to the crowd when uncertain.

Can we Escape Conformity?

Many people think they are above conformity and can escape the influence of conformity, but those people would be wrong.

Human brains are wired to be social, and we are especially sensitive to ostracization and rejection (social pain). That is why we always conform to the crowd, we want to be welcomed and accepted; so much so, that our brain gives us pain signals when we are anything but welcomed.

We are all conformists, and we conform so quickly and efficiently that we very rarely notice our doing so. We mimic the social cues of others, we conform to workplace standards, we adopt beliefs from our peer groups, and we conform to publicly accepted social contracts and rules. Conformity is baked into our brains, and so we cannot escape conformity anymore than water can escape freezing or evaporating at certain temperatures.

To conform is to be human.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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