people believe that in the face of profound evil, they would have the
courage to speak up. It might be harder than we think.
the last question of the quiz, and Chloë knows the answer: it's
Bolivia. Yes, it's definitely Bolivia. She went there last year, so she
ought to know.
But then Shaun says it's Panama, and all the others agree with him. Chloë's sure it's Bolivia, but Shaun's so confident, the others now are nodding furiously along with him.
"What do you think, Chloë?" she's asked. She pauses for a moment.
"Yeah... Shaun's probably right. Put Panama," she mumbles.
all been Chloë. Humans are social animals with families, tribes, and
workplaces. So, it's no wonder that we try to fit in or conform. Social
rejection is devastating, and we're biologically wired to avoid it. A
sense of belonging and cooperation is essential to dealing with the
world. Sometimes, though, this instinct can take us to ridiculous or
the decades after World War II, politicians and academics were curious
to know how it was that a country like Germany — so steeped in
tradition, culture, and education — could fall into such a terrible
regime within such a short time. Psychologists Stanley Milgram and
Philip Zimbardo conducted experiments to answer a question many everyday
people were asking: "Could it happen here?"
Would you tell a laughing group of people that a joke was sexist or racist or bigoted? In your heart of hearts, do you think that you — surely a loving and kind person — would have had the courage to resist Nazism?
the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments are pretty famous, one of the
lesser known experiments was done in the early 1950s by Solomon Asch.
They demonstrated just how far humans are willing to go for the sake of
"fitting in" and conforming to the rules.
had his volunteers perform a simple task: they were all given a series
of lines drawn on a card and asked to choose which line was longest out
of three options. The right answer was laughably obvious; for instance,
line A was clearly the longest. When they were alone, people chose
correctly nearly every time.
then put his subjects in a group with actors who had been instructed to
deliberately choose the wrong answer. Under these conditions, 75
percent of subjects agreed with the group consensus at least once, even
though they were blatantly wrong.
What makes us conform?
little surprised by this, Asch went on to do a series of related
experiments and documented the factors that made it more or less likely
that people will "conform" with the group consensus. Here are some of
The difficulty of the task. When
there's a higher degree of ambiguity or uncertainty about the answer
(for instance, the lines in the experiment weren't so obviously
different), we're more likely to agree with others.
Reliability of the source. If
someone within the group seems more reliable or knowledgeable about a
topic — like a doctor about a disease — then we are more likely to go
along with that person's view.
Publicity. People are much more likely to conform if they have to declare their judgment publicly rather than privately.
Degree of unanimity. The
presence of merely one or two dissenting voices in a group of any size
greatly increases the chances that others will not conform. Even one
rebellious response is enough to make others follow suit.
A Kosovo's opposition lawmaker throws a teargas canister in Pristina's parliament assembly room.Credit: ARMEND NIMANI via Getty Images
Of course, conformity has implications far beyond quizzes with your friends or measuring lines.
A similar but more alarming study was conducted by John Darley and Bibb Latané in the 1970s. In this study, they had subjects appear for an apparent "job interview." As the subjects were waiting, smoke was slowly pumped into the room. If people were alone, they always would check to see what was wrong, or they would get up and leave.
But when subjects were in a room with actors pretending as if nothing was wrong, the majority made no move whatsoever. This happened despite people coughing and rubbing their eyes from all the smoke. Amazingly, people were willing to risk their own health rather than break with group behavior. (No wonder many of us are hesitant to interrupt a meeting at work to open a window because it's far too hot in the room.)
do these experiments suggest about conformity? Well, as Asch said, we
learned "that intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to
call white black." He concluded that it was "concerning." Indeed.
you tell a laughing group of people that a joke was sexist or racist or
bigoted? In your heart of hearts, do you think that you — surely a
loving and kind person — would have had the courage to resist Nazism?
Psychology experiments strongly suggest you would not.
there are huge evolutionary, social, and emotional benefits to
conformity. Many times, it has done great good. But equally true is that
conformity can also bring out the darkest and worst in us.