Quote: David McRaney

From his 2011 book YOU ARE NOT SO SMART, which I blogged here about in 2013. One particular idea came to mind again recently (which I managed to track down to this book, though it’s likely discussed in others), considering my recent comments about crowds, peer pressure, social conformity, and thinking for oneself.

Chapter 33 of the book is called “Conformity” and begins with his standard misconception/truth contrast that he uses at the start of each of his many short chapters (which began as blog posts):

THE MISCONCEPTION: You are a strong individual who doesn’t conform unless forced to.

THE TRUTH: It takes little more than an authority figure or social pressure to get you to obey, because conformity is a survival instinct.

This is one of those books that draws upon the experimental psychology experiments of recent decades. (Though actually this experiment goes way back!) The particular one I recalled is described thus:

If I were to hand you a card with a single line on it, and then hand you another card with an identical line drawn near two others, one longer and one shorter, do you think you could match up the original to the copy? Could you tell which line in a group of three was the same length as the one on the first card?

You could. Just about anyone would be able to match up lines of equal lengthy in just a few seconds. Now, what if you were part of a group trying to come to a consensus, and the majority of the people said a line that was clearly shorter than the original was the one that matched? How would you react?

In 1951, psychologist Solomon Asch [see here, under “Conformity experiments”] used to perform an experiment where he would get a group of people together and show them cards like the ones described above. He would then ask the group the same sort of questions. Without coercion, about 2 percent of people answered incorrectly. In the next run of the experiment, Asch added actors to the group who all agreed to incorrectly answer his questions. If he asked which line was the same, or longer, or shorter, or whatever, they would force one hapless subject to be alone in disagreement.

You probably think you would go against the grain and shake your head in disbelief. You think you might say to yourself, “How could these people be so stupid?” Well, I hate to break it to you, but the researches says you would eventually break. In Asch’s experiments, 75 percent of the subjects caved in on at least one question. They looked at the lines, knew the answer everyone else was agreeing to was wrong, and went with it anyway. Not only did they conform without being pressured, but when questioned later they seemed oblivious to their own conformity. When the experimenter told them they had made an error, they came up with excuses as to why they made mistakes instead of blaming the others. Intelligent people just like you caved in, went with the group, and then seemed confused as to why.

…The percentage of people who conformed grew proportionally with the number of people who joined in consensus against them. Once the entire group other than the subject was replaced with actors, only 25 percent of his subjects answered every question correctly.

McRaney goes on with the famous Stanley Milgram experiment in 1963. I recall the example above because it reinforces my provisional conclusion that wisdom and understanding of the real world is a private project; it is not to be found in protesting mobs, political rallies, or church congregations.

The more complex take is in his chapter header: It’s a survival instinct, to conform. And surviving is distinct from understanding, or even correctly perceiving, reality. Another theme here.

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