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A new take on conformity

Do you fancy taking part in a quick experiment? You do? Great. Thanks.

So, all I want you to do is have a look at the line in the image below (exhibit 1) and tell me which of the other lines (exhibit 2) is the same length as the first. Line A, Line B or Line C. OK?

Asch Lines

What do you think?

I am guessing that this is probably not the most difficult or challenging task you have had to apply yourself to today. Unless that is, you are particularly cynical and suspicious, and believe that there is some kind of trick question here?

No, this is a replication of a famous study carried out by Solomon Asch back in the 1950s. He assembled groups of six people, and projected questions of this form to them, and simply asked you to report your views back, one at a time.

The results Asch found were very interesting though, because he found that it was remarkably easy to get you to say the wrong answer. All he had to do to make this happen, was get the other people in the group to report their answers wrongly first.

You see, of the group of six people, the other five were always working on behalf of the experiment. They had been told what to say at each question, and that for some of the questions, they would all give the wrong answer. As the real person in the experiment, you would always be the sixth (and last) person to say your answer back to the group.

So, why would an independent minded, free-thinking person such as yourself do that? Why would you behave in this way in the company of strangers, people who you don’t know and are unlikely to see again?

The original view has always been that people are simply conforming so that they do not seem to be different. They want to fit in with the rest of the group, and be accepted as part of it. However, more recently, light has been shed on this phenomenon by carrying out the same study but using brain-imaging technology. When this took place, Berns et al (2005) discovered that the changes taking place in the brain were not in the decision making areas, but in the perception ones. That is, people are not merely saying that they see things as the others do – they may actually be seeing them that way now. So hearing other people report their views, actually changes your perception.

Now, this is a very simple task remember. And as simple as it was, people still changed their perceptions in response to hearing what the other people reported. So, just think how easy it would be to get you to say and do things which you are less certain of? Choose an item off a shelf or a menu? Feedback on a design or concept? Agree to a motion at a board meeting perhaps?

Hmmmmm. I’m not sure how I feel about that. What do you think?