In the 1950′s a psychologist called Solomon Asch wanted to find out how strongly people would conform to the group around them. He gave about 100 men a card (supposedly like the one in the image to the right) and asked them whether A, or B, or C matched the line. Not surprisingly, most people got the answer right if they are on their own, but if they were surrounded by a group of people who were giving the wrong answer, often they would give the wrong answer too.
In the study, the test subjects thought that the people around them were being tested too, but those people were actors who’d been coached to give the wrong answer. Typically there were 6 or 7 actors and the test subject would be positioned last or second last, so they would hear the other wrong answers before their turn came.
So when faced with an obvious answer, about one third of the time people picked the group-think response instead. Ultimately only 25% of people did not succumb to the group effect in any of their answers, which means 75% gave at least one “groupified” answer to an obvious question.
Most of the people conforming were aware something was amiss, and admitted afterwards that they knew, but didn’t want to look stupid or out of place, but a few were convinced that the answer they gave was right. For them, apparently, the two different lines were the same length.
It takes 3 to form a group
Some interesting variations of the tests showed that we need three actors working to get the group effect. With only one or two actors people didn’t need as much to conform. With four or more in the group, there was no increase in conformity. (So Q&A is overdoing it — they don’t need a stacked panel of five — three would do).
But it only takes one to stand up and say the emperor has no clothes
What’s especially interesting to me is that it only took one “partner” who spoke the truth, to break the group effect. This is good news for the brave skeptical commenters who venture to sites and media-outlets where groupthink is at it’s most nakedly noxious. It’s also why the one person that speaks up to defend a victim can deflate the bully.
Naturally there are questions as to whether this effect is so strong in women, other cultures, with older people, or even in different era’s. One researcher tried to replicate it in 1980 with 396 engineering, maths, and chemistry students, but got wildly different results (like 1 out of 396, which seems a tad too perfect). But there are many other studies that support Asch’s original findings that people’s brains work differently when in a group. The herding instinct runs strong.
Imagine how hard it would be for some people to see the truth when surrounded by professors saying something else.
H/t to Howard Bloom’s entertaining book Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century.