At some point, everyone has done something weird to fit in. Maybe you have lied about what your favorite guilty pleasure song is to avoid public shame. Maybe you owned seven pairs of bell bottoms in the ‘70s even if you hated them because that’s what all your friend’s wore. Have you ever been reluctant to give a standing ovation because you didn’t deem the performance worthy but did anyway when everyone else was? Perhaps you have held your tongue once or twice after getting out of a movie that all your friends loved but you thought was terrible, or once lied about reading a book that you actually hadn’t to avoid dealing with the shock of your peers.
Humans are social creatures and we all feel social pressure, especially in group settings. Whether or not we comply with it is individual and circumstantial, but the urge to conform is an ever present force and this was on full display in Solomon’ Asch’s famous conformity experiment in the 1950s.
Conformity is the act of changing beliefs, attitudes and behaviors to match those of a group norm, whether this be in an immediate social setting or the culture at large. This social phenomenon had been observed in earlier studies, such as in Muzafer Sherif’s 1935 study which showed that participants would conform to group norms when put in a situation where the answer was ambiguous.
Asch wanted to take this a step further and see how often participants would conform despite there being a clearly correct answer. In 1956 an experiment was conducted with 123 white, male college students between the ages of 17 and 25. Each subject was put in a group with around six to eight people who were in on the experiment, referred to in experiments as confederates, unbeknownst to the subject.
The experiment was conducted in several rounds. The participants were shown two cards, one with a single line on it and a second card with three lines on it. They were asked to say which line on the second card matched the length of the line on the first. In the first two trials, the participant would be at ease as the confederates unanimously chose the correct answer. In the subsequent trials, the confederates intentionally chose the clearly incorrect answer with the participant being asked to answer last. Out of 18 total trials completed by each subject, the confederates would choose the wrong answer in 12 of them.
Only 23% of participants were able to withstand the social pressure and choose the correct answer regardless of the group majority opinion. Just under 5% of the participants would completely succumb to the incorrect opinions, and at least 75% of participants would conform to the incorrect opinion at least once.
Asch found that the group pressure increased significantly after one to three confederates answered incorrectly, with the influence dropping off after that. When one confederate was asked to answer correctly when the rest of the group answered incorrectly, the power of the majority opinion to sway the subject decreased substantially. For comparison, a control group without the presence of confederates was able to correctly match the lengths of the lines 99% of the time.
These studies have been developed and changed over the years, and results have trended towards the conformity effect actually weakening in the United States since the 1950s, which seems to imply that cultural shifts are able affect our behaviors. In cross cultural studies, rates of conformity seemed to be higher in countries that value collectivism and lower in states that place higher value on individualism.
Tendency to conform is a complex mix of influences based on individual personality, experience, settings and culture, so it is impossible to know for sure how each person will react to a group or why. These results tell us that conformity is common, but they also offer a glimpse into how it works, perhaps making going against the grain seem a bit less intimidating.
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