Thursday, September 08, 2005

Social Conformity

I don’t try to be contrary, but I can’t do things that don’t make sense to me.

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

27 comments:

Mark Cross said...

As I mentioned in a comment on my site today. We learn this behavior in grade school and carry it into our adult lives. I call it pack mentality but social conformity works too.

ME Strauss said...

Mark!
Yeah, I think we grown-ups have it worse than the kids.

Mark Cross said...

Very much so. You see it all around you. At work, in social gathers, inter-personal relationships and natural disasters.

ME Strauss said...

My thoughts exactly.

garnet said...

People must think there's some trick, a double meaning to the test, or the question.

Yes, pack mentality snags us daily. I am pretty contrarian in my choices: almost no TV, few magazines, less consumerist, less agressive about goals, into the present. But I often feel palpable social exclusion by the majority. As I mature, and through blogging, I've started to find others who orbit as far out as me.

iamnasra said...

Loved this article...it shows how the mind works...

ME Strauss said...

Garnet,
It's good to realize as we get older that the universe has many who aren't like the rest--sort of a minority majority. :) I've found that people who write tend to be that way by nature.

smiles,
me-Liz

ME Strauss said...

Lamnasra,
Thank you. I've been thinking about this for a while now. The way the mind works is interesting to me as well.

smiles,
Liz

Jennifer said...

When I was younger, I would have rather died than stand out from the group. Now that I am older, I find myself wanting to be unique and different from everyone else.

Yet if a group chose an obviously wrong answer, I would start to doubt myself. I would think the group saw something I was missing. I think it boils down to self-confidence more than conformity.

But being only one person, I am not a representative sample of the population.

ME Strauss said...

Jennifer,
Thank you for explaining it in a way that makes sense to me. THAT I can understand. Not being sure that you're missing something is something I'm always wondering about. I think most of the time I am.

smiles,
Liz

Lee Carlon said...

It is interesting, and I think it would be people with a little more confidence in themselves that give the answer they believe is correct.

I'm fairly used to going a different way to most people, not so much because I want to stand out, but because I know what I want/think and rarely change that just to conform with other people.

Good post Liz.

Ned said...

I am used to never having the same answer or opinion as anyone, let alone the group. I fear it may just be the fact that I am contrary rather than any individualism that I am exhibiting... sigh.

It does seem to hold true that people are more comfortable with their opinions if others will agree and support them. It is part of human nature to want to be an individual, but not part of our nature to want to feel isolated.

I suppose it is all a delicate dance between a need to be different and a need to be accepted.

ME Strauss said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Lee.
I too am used to being the odd man out. It would be hard for me to think that people just weren't seeing what was there. I would literally be moving in my seat.
smiles,
Liz

ME Strauss said...

Ned, you make such a good point. We want to be individual yet part of the group. It seems that people will give up their ididivuality to stay part of the group they don't know. I guess that when we're used to not having the same answer as the group, we learn to find value in why that is so. Your right it is a delicate balance, though.
smiles,
Liz

rhein said...

"the way the mind works..."

didn't someone say there is 3 frontiers left to humanity- the depths of the sea, the depths of space, and the depths of the human mind?

i've been trying to figure out how to add a link on my site to the photographer story you wrote.

ME Strauss said...

Rhein,
You are right about those three frontiers. Though with some of us, I suspect we might qualify for individual numbers on own. You know, frontier numbers 4, 5, 6, etc.

smiles,
Liz

I'll get the link info and bring it over.

melly said...

When I was a teenager and a youth group guide I used to start my session on Nazi Germany with this same test. I'd ask one of the kids to leave, explain the test to the group, and then call the kid back inside the room. I did that because one of the most prevalent questions when talking to kids about what happened back then is - but how come no one said anything or stood up?

Every once in a while a kid surprised me and stood his/her ground. You could never tell who these non-conforming kids would be in advance. Sometimes the popular ones, sometimes the nerdy/smart ones, and sometimes the annoying ones.
It remained a mystery.

ME Strauss said...

Melly,
What a great story. I had you been on the other end one of those kids would have been you.

smiles,
me-Liz

Anonymous said...

Hello Crayon Lady!

Ever heard of Zimbardo's Prison Experiment?

I disagree w/ ned in that it seems much more a trait of human nature to want & feel like one belongs to the group, is accepted as part of it.

All sorts of survival value in that behavior - and then there are the "misfits". Healthy societies tolerate them ( just in case conditions change & that sort of behavior has advantages,) but by & large, organizations/societies prefer conformists.

E

ME Strauss said...

Hi Anonymous E!
No I've not heard of Zimbardo's Prison Experiment, but I hear you suggesting that I find out about it. :)

You are a wise man to agree with Ned, she knows many things and quotes both Popeye and Kipling. But doesn't society need misfits for conformists to frown upon?

smiles,
Liz

Anonymous said...

> But doesn't society need misfits for conformists to frown upon?

No. Generalizing, the 'misfits' are usually the creative types who help to move a society in different, new, directions. Conformists will always predominate but a healthy society will allow & maintain a certain amount of diversity.

Just be thankful you don't live at a time when the Inquisition is busy - but then again, isn't there always some form of Inquisition at work?

E

ME Strauss said...

Ah Anonymous E!

The misfits have to strive for a balance between diversification and integration. The conformists determine the key and the price to the latter, possibly asking the misfits to choose between fitting in and sanity.

You're right there is always an inquisition of some sort--usually perpetrated by a mind that carries some sort of ego insecurity.

smiles,
Liz

Anonymous said...

You once mentioned that Australians think very differently re categorization?

Isn't it true that, in general, societies have different tolerances for non-conformists? It's part of what differentiates one from another - I'm thinking here of Japan, where, seems to me, there is a much, much higher value for conformity than here in the U.S.

All in all, I think we're incredibly lucky to be living in this place, at this time. Creativity, individuality, independence is valued much higher here than it is in other places around the world. Just a thought...

ME Strauss said...

Anon E,
Funny you should mention that I was just reading today that in Japan in certain situations, kids are called up to be nonconformists. They all do so in the same way. The Japanese person writing was bemoaning the fact that they were conforming in their nonconformity.

I do feel lucky to be in this country at this time and am delighted to hear you shout such good news. We misfits need to understand that this isn't such a bad place to be.

smiles,
Liz

Garnet` said...

Some thoughts after reading all these rich comments.

Conformity can also be good, a positive influence. It can break people out of weak habits by pressuring then to straighten up.

And non-conformists, outsiders, may grow stronger by that exclusion, may develop greater comsassion through the pain and lonliness. They are more willing to tell the truth as they see it.

In some ancient societies, the outsiders were seen as shamans, like the idiot savant, or the berdashe. Some societies reap the benefits and some do not. This difference could be seen as a barometer of a society's health.

Zephan said...

Social conformity is for the birds!!! And this is coming from a fifteen year-old. I'm a sophomore, and while all my peers are busy nattering on and on about who they're going out with, or what they should wear, I just stand there, rolling my eyes. I'm a loner, I don't care much for people, and I loathe all of those incompetent, oafish cads who think they have to act like everyone else and worry about it 24/7. I mean, Come on, people! Get some lives! Okay, I'm done ranting...I just need some info. for my speech topic.

ME Strauss said...

Good for you, zephan,

I'm with you 100%, which why I chose this topic to write about.

smiles,
Liz