Are You Feeling Pressured to Conform?

How to recognize what you really believe.

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I hope everyone is holding up. What a truly terrible time it's been for so many of us, and worse yet, for those whose lives we are actively fighting for.

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In other words, find 10 minutes of peace. Then, carry on.

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Are You Feeling Pressured to Conform?

When Solomon Asch was a 7-year-old in Poland, he was finally allowed to stay up late to experience his first Passover dinner with his family. As his grandmother poured a second glass of wine, Solomon asked who it was for. “For the prophet Elijah,” his uncle said.

"Will he really take a sip?" the boy asked.

"Oh, yes," the uncle replied. "You just watch when the time comes."

That suggestion and expectation filled Solomon with enough conviction that he watched the glass carefully. After a while, he realized that the level of wine in the cup had gone down. At least, that’s what he believed.

That single experience set the stage for Solomon’s life’s work as a social psychologist, pioneering studies highlighting how peer pressure shapes human behavior.

As a grown man, now living in NYC and teaching psychology at Brooklyn College, World War II began to take shape, and as Hitler rose to power, Dr. Asch began studying the effects of propaganda and indoctrination.

He found that propaganda is most effective when coupled with fear and ignorance. Instead of seeking out what might be false about the information we read and hear, the human mind is primed not to look for falsehoods but for truth, especially when the information is being disseminated by a majority group.

We are highly suggestible, and because we often believe what we’re told without doing our due diligence, he learned that people will often do regrettable things just to fit in—even if they don’t realize that’s why they’re doing it.

Dr. Asch believed that social pressure affects one’s perception and “interpretation of the world, and on how one forms impressions of others.”

To test this theory, he devised a study that became one of the 20th century’s seminal studies in Social Psychology—the Asch Conformity Experiments. In 1951, Dr. Asch gathered college students in groups of 8 to 10. Under the guise of a visual perception study, they were instructed to look at an image and decide which of the bars on the right equaled the length of the bar on the left. They were instructed to say their answers aloud.

He went through 18 sets of bars.

In these groups of 8 to 10 college students, only one person was the real subject. The others were accomplices instructed on how to respond in order to test how the majority of wrong answers would influence the minority. The accomplices were instructed to answer correctly at first, and then, after a few rounds, they were instructed to give incorrect answers.

The real subject was placed at the end so that after others had agreed upon an answer that was clearly incorrect, the subject would be left to either go along with those before him who chose incorrectly or to stand alone and choose the answer he knew to be correct.

To Asch's surprise, “37 of the 50 subjects conformed themselves to the 'obviously erroneous' answers given by the other group members at least once, and 14 of them conformed on more than 6 of the 'staged' trials. When faced with a unanimous wrong answer by the other group members, the mean subject conformed on 4 of the 'staged' trials.”

In total, about one-third of the subjects who were placed in this situation went along with the clearly erroneous majority.

The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black. This is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct.

Solomon Asch

The true subjects were interviewed after the experiment. Most admitted that while they didn’t agree with the answers they gave, they didn’t want to be mocked for choosing differently. Some did believe the group’s answers were correct, but a majority did not.

When subjects had an ally in the group, that is, someone who gave the correct answer following those who gave the incorrect answer, and that ally was not ridiculed for their dissenting opinion, the real subjects conformed one-fourth as much as in the original experiment.

The ally who dissented validated for the real subject their own certainty that the majority was wrong. In interviews afterward with the real subject, Asch learned that subjects were less afraid to be a minority of two than to be a minority of one.

What he found was that people conform for two reasons. The first is that they want to be liked. The second is that they believe others are better informed than they are.

While the experiment was deeply flawed, it included only white, college-aged men and therefore cannot be generalized for groups that don’t match this sample. It also didn’t account for the culture of the 1950s, which was conservative and targeted many who held left-wing views.

Yet, despite these failings, the study points to the power of social influence and was a major contribution to the field of social psychology. A vital takeaway from the experiment was understanding why people conform while offering insight into the circumstances that lead a person to betray their convictions.

Asch's conclusions included the difficulty in maintaining that you see something no one else does. When group pressure is applied, it can distort what people see, leading them to back-pedal, second guess, modify, and change their response.

Asch’s experiments in conformity formed the basis for studies about group behavior in modern American life, specifically the phenomenon coined by psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane in 1968 as the bystander effect. 

In the small hours of March 1968, Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old, was heading home to Kew Gardens, Queens, after a night bartending. Before she reached her apartment, she was raped and murdered. The New York Times reported that 38 witnesses heard and saw the attack, and not one of them called the police or intervened.

But, as is the case when inaccurate reports set the tone and stage, the story had already infiltrated the zeitgeist of the time, leading to theories known as “the bystander effect” and the “Genovese Syndrome.” It doesn’t mean that the bystander effect doesn’t exist; it simply means that this specific incident was inaccurate, as a fair amount of people did, indeed, call the police.

The bystander effect is defined by circumstances in which the presence of people (bystanders) influences an individual’s inclination to help another person in an emergency. They concluded that the more people present in an emergency, the less likely a single individual will make a move to help the person having the emergency.

The larger the size of the opposing majority, the more pressure on the minority to conform.

Despite illustrating how peer pressure often negatively affects social behavior, Asch still believed that people were decent at heart and tended to behave kindly towards each other.

The same epoch that has witnessed the unprecedented technical extension of communication has also brought into existence the deliberate manipulation of opinion and the “engineering of consent.” There are many good reasons why, as citizens and as scientists, we should be concerned with studying the ways in which human beings form their opinions and the role that social conditions play.

Solomon Asch

A vital takeaway from Asch’s conformity experiment, despite its flaws and biases, is to realize how easy it is to deny our own senses, values, morals, and beliefs to conform.

We are natural-born conformists.

We follow trends and listen to influencers. We fall for talking points and rallying cries without knowing the full scope of a situation or understanding the subtext of our words. We live in a world where the belief that we are right feeds on our sense of moral superiority, even when other evidence suggests we don’t have the entire picture.

We all have blind spots that lead us to deny someone else’s truth, and when these blindspots are pointed out, many push back and call for a public cancellation of the dissenter.

To dissent means risking erasure. To conform as a preemptive strike against erasure is to live in a bubble that privileges only your way of thinking, foreclosing on the possibility of free expression and the force that fuels every single piece of art.

Until next week, I will remain…



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