Group-Think and Conformity: Solomon Asch

As a follow-up to the previous post, I came across a reference to a famous psychological experiment (from 1951) that demonstrates the power of conformity over independent thinking.

I read about this case once before…. turns out it was in David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart… several years ago. Now I’m reading Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized, and in a chapter section titled “Reasoning in group” Klein cites the same study. I’ll just quote his three paragraphs.

In 1951, Solomon Asch, a professor at Swarthmore College, set out to study exactly how much of our reasoning we were willing to outsource to others. He showed subjects a card with a line and then asked them to match it to the line of corresponding length on another card. The test was easy. Under control conditions, fewer than 1 percent of the answers were wrong.

The twist, however, was that the subjects weren’t alone. There were also five to seven other participants who were actually working for Asch. And every so often, they would all give the same wrong answer. These were called the “critical trials.” The results were remarkable: on critical trials, the participants gave the wrong answer 37 percent of the time. Given the choice between what their eyes were telling them and what the group was telling them, they went with the group. “I felt conspicuous, going out on a limb, and subjecting myself to criticism that my perceptions, faculties were not as acute as they might be,” said one of the subjects in a post-experiment interview.

Asch’s work, which showed the way a group can influence the opinions of an individual, has been the basis for a revolution in understanding not just how humans think, but how partisans think. Because what is a political party, after all, but a group?

Thus, part of the attraction it seems to me of religious congregations and political rallies–you don’t have to think. You turn yourself over the consensus of the crowd.

Thus the wise man is found alone on a mountain.

(When I was a student at UCLA, I took an intro psych course, and part of the requirements for the course was to sign up as a volunteer for three or four studies, as the above study must have been, throughout the quarter. Sometimes the studies were straightforward, but a common ploy in such studies is that what you’re *really* being tested for is something you’re not consciously aware of. In the above case, it wasn’t about matching cards, it was about peer pressure and group conformity.)

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