Which of the lines are the same as line X (on the left, in the picture above)? The obvious answer is B. It is unambiguous. No one could have gotten this wrong.
Er, but what if you were in a room and everyone else said A or C? Would you still be convinced that the answer is B?
Would people be able to go against the majority, when they are very sure they are right?
Solomon Asch aimed to find out. In the Asch experiment, each participant is joined by 8 other "participants" - these 8 are actors planted by the experimenter to give the wrong answer. The real participants were of course not aware that the others were actors. Each real participant answered 6th in order, having heard 5 wrong answers before.
The experimenter asked a total of 12 questions, similar to the one above, with obvious, indisputable answers. What results did Asch find?
50% of people gave the same wrong answer as the others on more than half of the trials.
76% of participants denied their own logic at least once, following the blatantly false judgement of others on at least one of the 12 trials.
5% always conformed with the majority incorrect opinion (I presume we all have someone like this in our lives)
Asch interviewed the real participants after the experiment, interested to find out what influenced their decision making. Their answers should sound familiar:
All of them were anxious and feared disapproval from others. Everyone became more self-conscious
Most admitted that they had seen a different answer, but eventually thought that so many in the group must be correct.
Some said they went along with the group to avoid standing out, although they knew the group was wrong.
A small number of people actually said they saw the lines in the same way as the group.
We have repeatedly explored how much we are wired for survival. The Asch experiment reveals another deep-rooted mindset that we have evolved to carry - if everyone else is doing something, we tend to quickly come to the conclusion it is the right and safer thing to do. By following what everyone else is doing, we have a sort of insurance policy.
However, while conforming to the majority worked well in human history, and is quite often a useful heuristic in decision-making, the Asch experiment shows that blindly following others does not always work.
In fact, most major breakthroughs occur because someone didn't follow the majority. And if we are to write our unique life stories, we would necessarily have to decide and act for ourselves.
How can we do this? Read more about the "Growth Mindset and the disconfirming evidence theory"
Further info about the Asch experiment
Solomon Asch, an esteemed psychologist, was influenced by the work of Muzafer Sherif's Robbers-Cave Experiment (super interesting, read more here). The Robbers-Cave experiment found that when people were faced with making a decision on something they not sure of, they used others' judgement as a reference.
Asch wanted to find out, what if people were sure of the answer? Would the judgement of the majority still be used as a reference point? As we have seen, for most of us, at least some of the time, the answer is yes.
The findings of this study were startling and drove other psychologists to experiment further. More findings:
Asch later found that if the participant only had to write down their answer (while others called theirs out) conformity was reduced to 12.5%.
Deutsch and Gerard (1955) though gathered conformity rates of 23% even in conditions of high anonymity and high certainty about the answer.
"Conformers" typically have high levels of anxiety, low status, high need for approval and often authoritarian personalities.
Cultural differences also matter. People from cultures which view conformity more favourably – typically Eastern societies – are more likely to conform.
How to get someone to agree with you even if you have different views?
We fear what we are not good at