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The things we do: why we follow the crowd... and why we don't

Roxanne Bauer's picture

When do we follow the crowd and when do we think independently? Social science research offers some clues, starting with Solomon Asch's famous experiments exploring group conformity.

In 1935, Rudyard Kipling wrote, “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is a hard business. If you try it, you’ll be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
Line cards used in Asch's experiment on conformityWhile many of us read these words and think, ‘yes, I believe that, too’ we often do not follow through when put to the test.  Imagine yourself in this scenario: as a university student, you sign up to participate in a psychology experiment and on test day you are seated at a table with seven or eight others whom you believe to be fellow subjects.  The experimenter tells you are participating in a study of visual judgment and asks you to compare the length of a line on one card with a set of three lines of varying lengths on another card.  The experimenter asks you and the other test takers to choose which of the three lines on the right card matches the length of the line on the left card.  Several rounds of this are completed.
On some rounds the other test takers unanimously choose the wrong line.  It is clear to you they are wrong, what do you do?  Do you go along with the wrong answer to please the majority? Do you begin to doubt your eyes? Or do you trust yourself and select the correct line?

This is the model for a famous social psychology experiment by Solomon Asch, which he designed to explore the extent to which social pressure could affect an individual’s perceptions.  Asch asked the test takers to give their answers aloud and contrary to what the actual experimental test subject thought, only one student in each group was a real subject. The other seven were confederates of Asch and were instructed to incorrect answers on the “staged” rounds.  In each group, the experimental test subject was the penultimate person to give their answer so that he could hear most of the others’ responses before giving his own.
There were 18 different rounds of the experimental group and the confederates gave incorrect answers in 12 of them, what Asch referred to as the “critical trials”, to see if participants would change their answers to conform to what others said.

VIDEO: The Asch 'Conformity Experiment'

 A control group of 37 was also conducted and involved each participant giving their responses with only an experimenter in the room.
In all, 37 of 50 subjects went along with an ‘obviously erroneous’ answer at least once, and 14 of them went along on more than 6 of the “staged” rounds.  Less than one fourth of the experimental subjects stuck to their guns each time.

Solomon Asch and a real subject in 1955
Solomon Asch is pictured far right and the real subject is third from the right.

Following the rounds, experimental subjects were interviewed. Most of them said they did not believe the group was right but had conformed to the group answer for fear of being ridiculed or seeming peculiar. Some of the subjects revealed they thought the others were correct and their own eyes were playing tricks on them.
Another study— also conducted by Asch— allowed experimental subjects to write down their answers instead of saying it aloud, and conformity declined to about one third of what it had been in the original experiment, suggesting that fear of what others might think was a strong motivator.
Asch also found that the size of the opposing majority influenced whether an individual would conform or not.  In a series of studies, he varied the number of confederates from one to five. He found that experimental subjects were more likely to conform to opposing groups of 3 or more.

In contrast, subjects were less likely to conform if there was one other person giving correct answers.  In the presence of another non-conformist, the subjects conformed only one fourth of what they did in the original experiment.
Asch concluded that individuals have troubling maintaining their position when no one else shares it.
However, as Tim Harford points out in the Financial Times, the original “experiment found that total conformity was scarcer than total independence […] More than half of the experimental subjects defied the group and gave the correct answer at least nine times out of 12.  A conformity effect certainly existed but it was partial.”  Thus, it seems that Asch’s work demonstrates that while pressure to conform does influence the decisions of individuals, when groups are unambiguously wrong facts still matter.
Harford’s observation should allay concerns that we are all overwhelmed by the tribe, as Kipling put it. Evidence matters. Facts matter. And people are probably listening more than we think. 

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Video by Question Everything via YouTube
Photograph of Asch and his test subjects by Cara Flanagan via Wikimedia Commons