Conformity Myths

Conformity gets a bad rap.  From NYT Mag:

The psychologists Bert Hodges and Anne Geyer recently took a new look at a well-known experiment devised by Asch in the 1950s.  Asch’s subjects were asked to look at a line printed on a white card and then tell which of three similar lines was the same length. The answer was obvious, but the catch was that each volunteer was sitting in a small group whose other members were actually in on the experiment. Asch found that when those other people all agreed on the wrong answer, many of the subjects went along with the group, against the evidence of their own senses.

But the question (Which of these lines matches the one on the card?) was not posed just once. Each subject saw 18 sets of lines, and the group answer was wrong for 12 of them. Examining all the data, Hodges and Geyer found that many people were varying their answers, sometimes agreeing with the group, more often sticking up for their own view. (The average participant gave in to the group three times out of 12.)

This means that the subjects in the most famous "people are sheep" experiment were not sheep at all – they were human beings who largely stuck to their guns, but now and then went along with the group.

Our culture gives lip service to celebrating independence and dengrating conformity, but not only do we not actually discourage conformity much, it is not obvious that conformity as typically practiced is such a bad thing. 

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  • I have some problems with this subject. Firstly, is there any evidence vis-a-vis the pros and cons of conformity?
    And secondly, is it not a true by definition that conformity is not something a group can discourage very much on average? I mean, we can “embrace diversity”, but only up to a point. I am sorry that I am unable to formalize my intuition now, but I would not be surprised if an upper limit to “nonconformity” could be proven, given a metric.

  • celeriac

    Has anyone done the seemingly even more basic and prerequisite experiment where you don’t have collaborators lying, and just take bog-standard psychophysical threshold measurements, only with multiple observers?

    I’m glancing over a few abstracts and papers and scratching my head and wondering where the “psychology” is. They seem to be written in an alternate reality where Fechner, Thurstone, Green and Swets never lived.

  • Caledonian

    The ostensible purpose of Asch’s experiment was to study how perception varied, as the participants knew perfectly well. Lying about what you perceived would screw up the data.

    Furthermore, there were no consequences of going against the group, except for the subjects feeling silly. They did not continue interacting with the other subjects, those subjects held no power over them, they couldn’t develop a reputation for being strange, there was no cost associated with going against the group or benefit to be gained by going along with it… in short, there was remarkably little social pressure, much less than there would be in everyday life in the majority of cases.

    And people still altered their reports.

    How, exactly, is that not such a bad thing?

  • “except for the subjects feeling silly.”

    But Caledonian, this is one of the strongest pressures known to mankind – the fear of feeling silly in front of any group, no matter how well you know them. Humans, I would argue, still have many primate-type hierarchical instincts, as well as a long history of socialization in school etc., that instills in most people strong group feelings.

    The ability to quickly form useful and working groups, even with relative strangers, is a distinctly human trait that has proven beneficial, I would continue. Thus a certain level of “public conformity” is probably extremely useful to humans and perhaps even “natural.” Our grouping ability and its advantages are easily demonstrated by social utilities and Web. 2.0.

  • londenio

    It’s been a while since I took Social Psychology, but there was something about the Asch’s experiment about the reason for giving the “wrong answer”. (1) Some subjects were aware that they were giving the wrong answer and (2) some just thought they were relying on the judgment of others because they did not trust their own eyesight. These two processes seem very different to me. (2) can be understood as a Bayesian updating of my own weak beliefs in view of new information.

    I imagine that Robin’s question is directed to group (1), those that decided to agree against their beliefs. Perhaps out of cowardice. But also perhaps because they thought agreeing was more important than being accurate.

    It would be nice to model this as a little game and show that agreeing against our own beliefs can be optimal (either individually or socially).

  • Silas

    but not only do we not actually discourage conformity much, it is not obvious that conformity as typically practiced is such a bad thing.

    *head spins*

    Not only should you not avoid chances to avoid using double-negatives, you should actively discourage those who dislike not using double-negatives, from putting six negatives into a single clause.

  • Levi

    I think people who claim that conformity is wrong would say that it is wrong because it takes away free choice from the individual. This view could be motivated by two types of reasoning: (1) taking away free choice is inherently wrong and (2) by following the herd are missing out on the good things in life.

    The umph of motivation (1) seems to only apply to issues that really matter (like your political views, your beliefs on various issues, etc) and not on things that don’t really matter (what band you like, what your favorite wine is, etc).

    The only way I can make sense of the distinction between “things that really matter” and “things that don’t really matter” is that if an issue really matters then your beliefs (measured by the outcome or implimentation of those beliefs) will have some effect on other people.

  • If I may share a personal anecdote… when I was doing Logic in university my tutor was a bit inexperienced, and he gave us the following example of an “invalid” argument:

    * If it rains I will get wet.
    * If I have my umbrella I won’t get wet.
    * Therefore, if I have my umbrella it won’t rain.

    Because he said this was invalid, the whole group agreed that it was invalid, except me. After about 5 minutes of arguing about it, I finally “realized” that I was wrong and everyone else was right.

    Except they weren’t, of course. It was quite troubling thinking about it afterwards. I genuinely had believed what everyone said.

  • Constant

    Allan – maybe you didn’t explain your case convincingly. It seems to me that the error in the argument is not in the inference itself but in the first premise, i.e., the premise that “if it rains I will get wet”. This is not true, because if it rains and you have an umbrella you will not get wet. Did you make this case, or something similar? Generally I find that people are immovable until you give them an alternative. There was an error lurking in the argument, only it wasn’t the particular error that they thought. If you tried simply to argue that there was no error anywhere, it’s not surprising they were not convinced.

  • It was unsound but not invalid. Anyway the point I was making was not that others made a mistake, but that I came to agree with them…

  • I think arguing about conformity misses the larger point, which is that human cognition is radically social in nature. Almost all of our conceptual apparatus has come to us via other people, in one way or another, and most mental processing consists in receiving, using, and sharing the conventional wisdom. So conformity is not really the phenomenon that needs to be explained, but the opposite. What gives people, under unusual circumstances, the ability and courage to break from the pack?

    I noted recently that most radical individualists, like almost all other nonconformists, express their nonconformism by finding groups of like-minded people and banding together into a society, subculture, or actual cult. People who are truly independent thinkers tend to be seen as mentally ill, like this San Francisco icon.

  • Overcoming Laziness

    How is conformity “typically practiced”? Is it rexamining one’s beliefs in response to the group’s and subsequently recognizing where one made a mistake; or is it sucumbing to peer pressure when one doesn’t agree or doesn’t understand?

  • Adirian

    Taking a short version of my answer in the other post on this topic – it makes no sense to take the word of eight untested individuals. The uncertainties are magnified considerably greater by the hundreds if not thousands of compounding variables which may be at work in another set of sentient beings – it’s not just a question of my perception versus their perceptions, it’s a question of my perceptions versus my perceptions of both the nature of their perceptions and whether or not they accurately conveyed their perceptions.

    In a choice between perceptions which I have thoroughly tested, and eight individuals I have not, there is absolutely no reason to conform.

  • ““I see intelligence as just one of a variety of adaptations among tetrapods for survival. Running fast in a herd while being as dumb as shit, I think, is a very good adaptation for survival.”
    –Evolutionary paleontologist Jack Sepkoski (as quoted by Michael Ruse).

  • bob

    A better argument for this is

    If it rains the ground gets wet
    Its not raining
    Therefore the ground is not wet.

  • Hazza

    Take the statement “On there side”. This statement takes me back to an argument I accidentally started, which until now is my biggest lesson in energy conservation, and picking only worthy battles. I was trying to convince 20 people that it was incorrect and should have been “their”. There was no convincing people and it was due to either lack of knowledge or ganging up on the odd one out.

    From this, I learnt that you should save energy for worthwhile causes as can be seen in these stupid Asch experiments of which I have seen many variations. Each video I see, you can almost tell that the person is experiencing internal conflict with what’s going on outside and just vocalising the group opinion.

    Seeing this experiment over and over again is much like separating salt from water using a bunsen burner, over… and over again. IT might be better to ask candidates are you mickey mouse? are you a douchebag? your mother’s a whore true or false?