Solomon Asch. "Opinions and social pressure." Scientific American, vol.193, no.5 (1955), p.31-35.
Back in April, I wrote about the classic Milgram experiment and what it shows about how disturbingly willing people are to submit to authority, even in the presence of strong countervailing reasons. What about when the pressure to obey comes not from an authority figure above us, but from our peers? How will people fare then?
A classic study was done on this question in 1955 by Solomon Asch. In Asch's experiment, eight participants were shown into a room and sat down in a row, in full view of each other. In actuality, there was only one real subject; unbeknownst to that person, the other seven people were confederates of the experimenter.
The experimenter, standing at the front of the room, put up a card with a single reference line on it, and then another card with several lines of varying lengths. The experimenter then asked the participants to state out loud which of the lines on the second card was the same length as the reference line. The lines on the cards were all of dramatically varying lengths, so it was obvious at a glance which two lines matched. But the seven confederates, all of whom answered before the subject, all gave the same wrong answer.
What would you do in a circumstance like this? It seems obvious what the correct answer is. Yet everyone around you disagrees, which raises the unsettling possibility that the fault is yours. Would you stick to your guns, insisting on following the evidence despite strong social pressure to conform? Or would you give in and assume that maybe everyone else knows something you don't?
In control experiments where the element of social pressure was not present, participants selected the wrong line less than 1% of the time. But when group pressure was applied, the results changed dramatically. For all trials combined, participants gave the wrong answer when pressured to do so approximately 37% of the time, and as many as 75% of people went along with the majority at least once.
These are disturbingly high numbers. But Asch's experiment, if anything, underestimates the pressure to conform in the real world. This experiment was carried out in the highly artificial environment of the laboratory - where the right answer was unambiguous and extremely obvious, potentially giving independent thinkers a stronger motivation to resist peer pressure. In real-life situations where the answers are not so simple, it may be more difficult not to go along with the crowd. Perhaps even more important, the confederates in the laboratory experiment were strangers, bearing no special relation to the participant. What if, instead, they were members of the participant's in-group - relatives, friends, citizens of the same country, members of the same race, of the same religion? Under such circumstances, it may be far more difficult not to give one's allegiance to the group. In such cases, it's not hard at all to understand how many people could be coerced into stifling their doubts and joining the majority for fear of being the odd one out.
The Asch experiment has been repeated in modern times as well (source), this time with advanced brain-scanning imagery that allows researchers to watch which parts of the brain light up with activity in people in these situations. The results: when faced with a conflict with the group, the most-active areas of the brain are those having to do with spatial perception, not conscious judgment. The researchers suggested that the pressure of group conformity may literally change what a person sees - although, to be fair, an equally plausible explanation is that a participant's mentally "rechecking their answers" to see if they made a mistake causes increased activity in the spatial regions of the brain.
However, these findings were not all bad news. In Asch's original experiment, about one-quarter of participants refused to be swayed, always rejecting the wrong answer no matter how many other confederates supported it. These nonconformists may well be the ones who seed movements of social change in the real world, rejecting widely believed prejudices and inspiring something new and better. (It would be interesting to redo this study and find out whether people in this group correlate with atheism and freethought.)
But the Asch conformity experiment gives another, more substantial reason for hope. In a slight variation of the experiment, where just one confederate gave the right answer, the rate of compliance with the majority plunged dramatically. Evidently, seeing even one other person stand by you is enough to give most people the courage to resist social pressure.
This is why it is so important for atheists to speak out. We may be accused of "preaching to the choir", but in our case, we have a choir that needs to be preached to. The societal prejudices against atheism still run so strong that many nonbelievers are coerced into remaining anonymous, staying silent about their views or even pretending to be theists so as not to be discriminated against. In an atmosphere of intense hostility and bias, this is not hard to understand at all. But by making ourselves visible, by speaking out for atheism in a strong voice, we may well give many of these closeted nonbelievers the motivation they need to speak out and make their own voices heard in turn.