We all know that humans are natural born conformers – we copy each other’s dress sense, ways of talking and attitudes, often without a second thought. But exactly how far does this conformity go? Do you think it is possible you would deny unambiguous information from your own senses just to conform with other people?
Have a look at the figure below. Compare the line on the left with the three lines on the right: A, B & C. Which of these three lines is the same length as the lonesome line on the left?
It’s obviously C. And yet in a classic psychology experiment conducted in the 1950s, 76% of people denied their own senses at least once, choosing either A or B. What kind of strong-arm psychological pressure tactics made them do this?
The fascinating thing about this experiment was that its creator, renowned psychologist Solomon Asch, set out to prove the exact opposite. A previous experiment by Muzafer Sherif (see his well-known Robbers Cave experiment) had found that when people were faced with making a judgement on an ambiguous test, they used other people’s judgements as a reference point.
This makes perfect sense. If I’m not sure about something, I’ll check with someone else. But this is only when I’m not sure. The situation is quite different when I have unambiguous information, such as when I can clearly see the answer myself. Other people’s judgement should then have no effect – or at least that’s what Asch thought.
To test his theory he brought male undergraduates, one at a time, into a room with eight other people who were passed off as fellow participants (Asch, 1951). They were then shown three lines with another for comparison, similar to the figure above. Participants were asked to call out which line – A, B or C – was the same length as the reference line. This procedure was repeated 12 times with participants viewing variations of the above figure.
What the participants didn’t realise was that all the other people sat around the table were in on the game. They were all confederates who had been told by the experimenter to give the wrong answer. On half of the trials they called out the line that was too short, and on the other half the line that was too long.
The real experimental participant, who knew nothing of this, was actually the sixth to call out their answer after five other confederates of the experimenter had given the wrong answer.
The results were fascinating, and not at all what Asch had been expecting:
- 50% of people gave the same wrong answer as the others on more than half of the trials.
- Only 25% of participants refused to be swayed by the majority’s blatantly false judgement on all of the 12 trials.
- 5% always conformed with the majority incorrect opinion (we all know people like that, right?!)
- Over all the trials the average conformity rate was 33%.
Intrigued as to why participants had gone along with the majority, Asch interviewed them after the experiment. Their answers are probably very familiar to all of us:
- All felt anxious, feared disapproval from others and became self-conscious.
- Most explained they saw the lines differently to the group but then felt the group was 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.
The findings of this study were so startling they inspired many psychologists to investigate further. Here are a few of their findings:
- Asch himself 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) still found conformity rates of 23% even in conditions of high anonymity and high certainty about the answer.
- Those who are ‘conformers’ typically have high levels of anxiety, low status, high need for approval and often authoritarian personalities.
- Cultural differences are important in conformity. People from cultures which view conformity more favourably – typically Eastern societies – are more likely to conform.
A mixed blessing
The variations on the original theme go on and on, examining many possible experimental permutations, but the basic finding still remains solid. While there’s no surprise that we copy each other, it’s amazing that some people will conform despite the evidence from their own eyes. Imagine how much easier it is to encourage conformity when ambiguity levels are much higher, as they often are in everyday life.
Conformity itself is something of a mixed blessing. In many situations we need conformity. In fact, many aspects of our social lives would be much harder if we didn’t conform to a certain extent – whether it’s to legal rules or just to queuing in the post office.
The dangers of conformity are only too well-known, just take a look at the implications of Milgram’s obedience experiments for a glimpse at what humans will do in the name of conformity. Sometimes it really is better if we think for ourselves rather than relying on what others say and do.
How does conformity affect us all?
It certainly bears considering how our own lives would be different if, one day, we decided not to conform, or even to suddenly start conforming. Would things get better or worse for you? Many people find their inability to conform is a real problem in their lives while others find it more difficult to break away and do their own thing.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: Barabeke
10 Brilliant Social Psychology Studies
→ This post is part of a series on 10 brilliant social psychology studies:
- The Halo Effect: When Your Own Mind is a Mystery
- How and Why We Lie to Ourselves: Cognitive Dissonance
- War, Peace and the Role of Power in Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment
- Our Dark Hearts: The Stanford Prison Experiment
- Stanley Milgram: Obedience to Authority Or Just Conformity?
- Why We All Stink as Intuitive Psychologists: The False Consensus Effect
- Why Groups and Prejudices Form So Easily: Social Identity Theory
- How to Avoid a Bad Bargain: Don’t Threaten
- Why We Don’t Help Others: Bystander Apathy
- Conforming to the Norm