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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.
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!
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Comment question of the week
Do humans follow a herd—or mob—mentality?