Conformity and why you should be afraid of peer pressure

Dear Reddit: thanks for sharing! You guys are awesome.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how our brains make up what we can’t see, and people loved it. Here is something even more wild about how your brain is predisposed to follow a hive mind.

We all know other people influence how we think. Friends, family, and idols help us form opinions on just about everything. But how far can this impact go? What if someone could change not only what we think but what we see? Enter the Asch Conformity Experiments.

In 1951, social psychology pioneer Solomon Asch designed an experiment to test how individuals reacted to group pressure. The setup was simple: subjects were told they were participating in a perceptual experiment. Each was placed in a room with seven “confederates” (actors) posing as fellow participants. Groups were shown two cards, one with a single line and the other with three more lines, and told to match which of the three was the same length as the first. Seats were arranged so that the subject answered last. For the first two trials, everyone gave the obvious, correct answer. Then the real experiment began.

Confederates were instructed to unanimously choose a wrong answer for twelve of the remaining sixteen trials. These were called “critical” trials. While subjects had trusted their own opinions during the first two rounds, the changes were striking: in one-third of critical trials, subjects gave an incorrect response. These errors usually matched the confederates’ answers. Furthermore, three-fourths of subjects gave at least one incorrect response in the face of opposition.

Asch noticed key differences among subjects. Among those who gave the correct responses, some offered their views with confidence while others reacted with doubt or withdrawal, questioning their vision or trying not to draw attention. The conformists were more nuanced. During post-experiment interviews, most participants described to a “distortion of judgment,” that they had assumed the group was right and they were wrong. Others confessed to a “distortion of action,” having yielded to the group for fear of standing out.

Asch Conformity Experiment Experiment Social Solomon Asch Psychology Swarthmore Line Card Hive Mind Weekly Show

Subjects matched the lines with ease during the first two trials, but began to doubt themselves when confederates turned against them.

The remaining conformists described a “distortion of perception.” Unlike the others, these subjects had actually believed the group was correct—they were unaware they had answered incorrectly at all. While these subjects comprised only a small portion of participants, their experience is the most profound. The group pressure convinced them they saw something that was not there, warped their perceptions until their reality matched the majority’s.

Asch’s experiment showcases the power of group dynamics. Our minds give precedence to the crowd, defer to the majority when our experiences do not add up. These tests have been repeated countless times, always with the same results. This highlights the dangerous pull of mobs and demagogues, those who draw people in without regard for facts or rationality. Moreover, Asch’s work demonstrates our susceptibility to a herd mentality. Our brains have evolved to follow, not lead, to take the beaten path instead of the unmarked trail.

Asch later modified his setup to test the extent of these influences. Among other things, he determined that unanimity of opposition is a key factor in  deferring to the group and that having a dissenting “partner” greatly decreases conformity. You can read more about his findings here.

I find his study’s implications disturbing to say the least. The human mind is malleable, predisposed to conform to normalcy in even the most trivial of environments. This offers insight into the hive mind phenomenon that has caused such destruction throughout history. What do you think? Is this surprising? Terrifying? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. As always, please like, share, or reblog this post if you enjoy it. That small click really helps me out! Be sure to check me out on Twitter and Facebook as well. Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to subscribe for new content every Wednesday! IT’S FREE!

Click here for last week’s post: Misconceptions about evolution: why species, not individuals, evolve

Other related articles:

Could Humans Evolve into a Giant Hive Mind? (io9)

Top 10 Instances of Mob Mentality (Listverse)

5 Psychological Experiments That Prove Humanity is Doomed (Cracked)

Your Brain is a Liar and Can’t Be Trusted

Don’t Click This Link


Comment question of the week

Do humans follow a herd—or mob—mentality?


2 thoughts on “Conformity and why you should be afraid of peer pressure

  1. Does this experiment surprise me? Not so much. We see examples of conformity everyday. Conformity can be described as, adjusting your opinions, judgments, or behavior so that it matches those of other people. You can being driving on the highway, you see someone get into the next lane over because in your current lane, people are coming to a stop due to traffic. You see the person in front of you moving to the next lane, so you believe it is normal to dodge the traffic like everyone else on the highway. You’re entering the elevator at work, you walk in and see everyone is facing toward you, so you walk in, turn around, and face forward to others entering the elevator as well. Why don’t you face the wall of the elevator instead of the doors? We don’t know, but no one else is so why should I? People may think you’re strange and we wouldn’t want that, now would we? The people around us influence us socially whether we recognize it or not. Our family, our friends, and even people on television or in magazines have an impact on the decisions we make in our daily lives. What clothing we decide to put on in the morning, the way we style our hair, even what we eat for breakfast. We use all of these things to try to fit in with the “norms” of society. The thought of how far people will go to fit in is sort of terrifying. In my psychology course, we were shown a video. In this video, a man is hit by car. Left laying in the street. Does anyone stop to help him? No. Why is this? I can explain it as the “Bystander effect”, a phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the less likely each individual is to help someone in distress. You see cars continuing to drive past this man, people walking on the sidewalk past him as he’s lying in pain in the middle of the road. Are we so selfish to take time out of our day to call 911? Are we scared we may be blamed for what happened? Many of these different questions cross our minds, but we see no one else is helping him. So, maybe someone already called the police, so I am just going to go about my day. I believe everyone just wants to be accepted, no matter the scenario. We want to belong, and the things some people do to fit in is beyond me, but we all do it. Whether it is something so simple as our out-fit, or a little more extreme and change our behavior. We want to be normal, is that so much to ask?

    • Hey, Emily. Awesome comment! Sorry for the delayed response as well–I’m in Hungary with limited access to internet.

      You’re totally right about conforming without realizing it. Almost everything in our lives is based on what we have seen others do or what we have come to understand as normal. Why do I make eggs in the morning or have a living room, dining room, and kitchen? Our understanding of normalcy is hugely influenced by what we see.

      And yes, the bystander effect is terrifying! I’ve been considering it as a subject for a future post. Even more disturbing is how behavior changes when variables are changed. People will stop to help someone who looks like them far more often than they will help somebody who looks different. For example, an actor dressed in rags will be ignored in the financial district, but the same person dressed in a suit will receive help and attention almost immediately. Both crazy and terrifying.

      We all instinctively want to belong. At face value that might not be distressing, but as you point out it can lead to shocking consequences. I think I’m going to feature this in a future post. I guess your comment has inspired me haha. Thanks for dropping by!

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