A while back I was sitting in the neighborhood bar talking to a professor of psychology. I was asking him about the people who work for me.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “He walked into my office and told me it was the best of it’s kind that he’d ever worked on. He was proud of it. I thought I had finally gotten him to think. He was certainly seeing what the payoff is. But the next time around he was back to underachieving again.”
My friend, the professor took out his pen, pulled over a napkin, and began to explain the Asch test to me. I was both interested and invested. I sipped my wine and listened attentively.
“Dr. Asch sat a group of people around a table. All but one were confederates in the experiment. Asch showed them two cards, like these two. He asked them each to say which line on the second was the same length as that on the first. All but one answered the question before it was the subject’s turn. All chose the obviously wrong choice, say for example, the too long third one. Then Dr. Asch turned to the subject and asked for an answer. Put on the spot in a group, 34% of the subjects gave the group answer consistently even when the experiment was repeated, and 74% agreed with the group at least once. “ Now I was floored. Talk about speechless.
“But the answer is obvious.” I said setting my wine on the bar, leaning in, looking for some explanation.
“Yes, that’s the point,” he said. “Still most people choose to go with the group. They don’t want to look silly or take a risk. You can take heart that it changes if one other person chooses the right answer, if the subject sees some support.”
“If someone else will be brave,” I said without feeling.
“That’s one explanation.”
I was shaking my head and looking at my hands long before the next words came out.
“I couldn’t do that,” I said. “It would physically hurt me.” I looked up from the lines on the napkin, a pained expression that I could feel on my face. “I would hate it, but I would have to say no. What use would I be to anyone, if I didn’t say what I see? The whole thing doesn’t make sense to me. . . . I believe it—I’ve lived it—but I don’t understand it.”
“It’s called social conformity.”
Dr. Asch was still working on why it happens. When he died he wasn’t sure whether some subjects hadn’t convinced themselves the group answer was correct. Kind of explains how two reporters can cover the same event and write up two entirely different stories.
My dad used to say “Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see.”
He said a lot about honesty, but not a word about conformity.
—me strauss Letting me be