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.”
While 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?