The Pervasive Threat of Conformity: Peer Pressure Is Here to Stay
The Asch effect has been replicated successfully numerous times, in a variety of contexts, and each time, peer pressure glows strong.
Maria Konnikova is the New York Times bestselling author of The Confidence Game (Viking/Penguin 2016) and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Viking/Penguin, 2013). She is a contributing writer for The New Yorker, where she writes a regular column with a focus on psychology and culture, and her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, California Sunday, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, WIRED, and The Smithsonian, among numerous other publications. Maria is a recipient of the 2015 Harvard Medical School Media Fellowship, and is a Schachter Writing Fellow at Columbia University’s Motivation Science Center. She formerly wrote the “Literally Psyched” column for Scientific American and the popular psychology blog “Artful Choice” for Big Think. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where she studied psychology, creative writing, and government, and received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia University.
Today, I’d like to revisit one of the most well-known experiments in social psychology: Solomon Asch’s lines study. Let’s look once more at his striking findings on the power of group conformity and consider what they mean now, more than 50 years later, in a world that is much changed from Asch’s 1950s America.
How long are these lines? I don’t know until you tell me.
In the 1950s, Solomon Asch conducted a series of studies to examine the effects of peer pressure, in as clear-cut a setting as possible: visual perception. The idea was to see if, when presented with lines of differing lengths and asked questions about the lines (Which was the longest? Which corresponded to a reference line of a certain length?), participants would answer with the choice that was obviously correct – or would fall sway to the pressure of a group that gave an incorrect response. Here is a sample stimulus from one of the studies:
Which line matches the reference line? It seems obvious, no? Now, imagine that you were in a group with six other people – and they all said that it was, in fact, Line B. Now, you would have no idea that you were the only actual participant and that the group was carefully arranged with confederates, who were instructed to give that answer and were seated in such a way that they would answer before you. You’d think that they, like you, were participants in the study – and that they all gave what appeared to you to be a patently wrong answer. Would you call their bluff and say, no, the answer is clearly Line A? Are you all blind? Or, would you start to question your own judgment? Maybe it really is Line B. Maybe I’m just not seeing things correctly. How could everyone else be wrong and I be the only person who is right?
We don’t like to be the lone voice of dissent
While we’d all like to imagine that we fall into the second camp, statistically speaking, we are three times more likely to be in the first: over 75% of Asch’s subjects (and far more in the actual condition given above) gave the wrong answer, going along with the group opinion.
What was happening? Peer pressure, it seems, won over simple visual perception. The tests weren’t hard; in the control groups, hardly anyone ever made a mistake. But there was something about being the odd man out that caused intelligent, well-educated subjects to go against their better judgment – and then to justify their behavior in very creative ways.
However, there was an important caveat. If at least one other person in the group said the correct answer, the rate of conformity dropped off steeply. All it took was that single voice of dissention, and lo and behold, the participant was ready to join in. He wouldn’t, however, do it alone.
Moving beyond lines: conformity in the social networking age
The Asch effect has been replicated successfully numerous times, in a variety of contexts, and each time, peer pressure glows strong. It’s not surprising, given that Asch’s stimuli were about as straightforward as they get. If I can get you to doubt the length of a line, when the answer is staring right at you from the page, imagine how much easier it would be to get you to doubt something more complex, something where the shades of grey are much more believable, the “correct” answer far less straightforward.
And in that greyer, more nuanced world of ideas, no longer of simple lines, what would the ramifications of conformity to peer pressure be? On the one hand, one could argue that the effect would go away. There are more opinions, more places to find them, a greater chance that you won’t be the lone voice of defection, isolated against a united group, and that you’d therefore stick with what you, in the privacy of your pre-group mind, had already decided.
However, what about those groups that aren’t the anonymous masses of the internet but rather your actual friends, your peers, those that you share with at an ever-increasing rate on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever it is you go to share? Don’t their opinions hold more sway? And would you be as likely to speak out if you were to find a unified front on the other side of the issue? With the launch of Google+, that question is even more relevant: now that you can create “circles” of users in very specific niches, isn’t it even more unlikely that you would disagree? Think: how powerful is the first person to express an opinion in that setting? And how is that likely to shape the thoughts of the others in that group? And what about ripple effects?
The influence of groups in everyday life
In fact, I don’t even have to go online to see it in action. Take the world of academia, the ivory tower where you have the most educated minds, those that would be most inured, it would stand to reason, against the pernicious influences of peer pressure. This is a world that is predominantly liberal, in the political sense of the word. The conservatives are few and far between. And I know many an individual who would never dare express a view that might betray anything other than an overwhelming liberal bias in this group of peers. Especially a student or someone who has yet to get tenure. The motto seems to be, for the most part, get tenured first, express dissention later (if at all).
And are they wrong to be quiet? The prominent conservatives, like Harvey Mansfield, are pilloried on a regular basis, their words taken out of context, distorted, made to seem callous and villainous. Except Mansfield, of course, has tenure at Harvard. He doesn’t care. But he didn’t care far, far earlier, and I love him for it.
I’ll go a step further. I’ve often been on the wrong side of the political argument—I don’t identify with either party and take the issues as they come—and not once have I dared object to senior faculty when I have felt they were saying something ridiculous, stupid, or even potentially dangerous, coming as it was from someone with such widespread influence and authority. Not a single time did I dare argue; no one else did, and there was too much at stake.
There are those lone souls, whom I admire to no end, who are different, who will be the sole voice of opposition no matter the costs. I’d like to think I’d be one of them if something mattered enough. But it’s tough. And I don’t see it ever getting any easier.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.