Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why We Conform: What the Asch Conformity Experiments tell us

Lemmings: "If everyone was jumping off a cliff..."
"If everyone was jumping off a cliff..."
by S1501 (Source

# 1 in the Series "Applied Social Psychology"

Knowledge is power, as the saying goes.

One of the greatest gifts that late 20th and early 21st centuries have given us is an appreciation of how we humans actually behave in groups. And our predictable biases that can be manipulated by dishonest marketers and hucksters to act in ways that run contrary to our best interest.

Even economics, whose classical theory includes the tenet that people in economics transactions make a rational decision to optimize their payoffs, turns out to be wrong. And people will make the same incorrect move at a relatively predictable rate. Which leads to Dan Ariely's seemingly nonsense title Predictably Irrational.

So knowledge is power. If you know that you have "defects" which kludge up you're thinking, you can defend against them.

Which leads us to today's topic: Conformity. And why do we tend to mimic others?

The classic and most ingeniously simple of the experiments that track our tendency to conform were performed in the 1950's by psychologist Solomon Asch. The inital experiment was simple:

  1. Fill a room with 7 "confederates," who are in cahoots with the experimentor.
  2. Have the experimental subject, who assumes that your plants are just regular subjects, seated last.
    Cards from the Asch Experiment (source: Wikipedia)
    Cards from the Asch Experiment (source: Wikipedia)
  3. Flash a series of cards showing two groups of lines. Group A has 1 line, and Group B has 3 lines. Tell the group that "Your task is to measure which line from Group B is the same length as the line in Group A.
  4. Have a confederate give an obviously incorrect answer, making sure that the others do as well.
  5. Test how often the test subject (AKA the "Patsy") follows the crowd, even when he or she knows that they are answering incorrectly.
The results? Student error increased from near perfect to a 1/3 error rate. Incredible. All to comply with the group, and not make waves with the group. 

Which is pretty scary. Because it turns out we are a bit like lemmings after all. 

The Moral Of the Story: If you are in a group, pay attention to what you are saying. And don't go along with something you know that, if you were alone, you just would not do. 

By the way, below is a video of Asch performing the actual experiment. Pretty neat.

Other installments in the "Applied Social Psychology Series"

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