Why you need to be the one to speak up

August 15, 2006 | By | 5 Replies More

Each of us sometimes feels the pressure of being the lone dissenter in a group. It can make you sweat and it can make your heart pound when you have to go up against the group. How strong is the pressure to conform?  This topic was explored and well-documented in the 1950s by Solomon Asch, a social psychologist who pitted the human tendency to conform against the tendency to be truthful. 

Asch told innocent subjects that they were going to participate in an experiment on visual perception.  The subjects were to participate in groups of seven to nine persons per group.  The group was instructed to indicate which of the three “comparison” lines were closest in length to a given line. Each person in the group gave his or her answer in turn.  There was only one innocent subject per group, however.  Everyone else in the group was a stooge who had been instructed to follow a routine prearranged by the experimenter.

The test was actually rather easy and the first three trials were simply a set up for what was going to happen next.  On the fourth trial (and, similarly, on selected subsequent trials), where the given line was 1.5 inches long, the three “comparison” lines were .5 inches long, 1.5 inches long and 2 inches long. The experiment had been arranged so that each of the stooges were designated to give his or her answer before the innocent subject had a chance. On that fourth trial, the first stooge answered incorrectly, without any hesitation or indecision.  That first stooge indicated that the 1.5 inch given line best matched with the .5 inch long line (not the 1.5 inch “comparison” line).

See the following illustration of a 1.5 inch test line and three “comparison” lines of the lengths described above.

lines - small.jpg

Here is how the events then unfolded, according to Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett in The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology (1991) (a book I highly recommend–all quotes in this post are from this terrific book):

Inevitably, the subjects reaction was one of wide-eyed disbelief, a quick doublecheck to make sure that the judge’s response was as off-base as it seemed, and often a nervous giggle or some other expression of vicarious discomfort at his peer’s folly.  These feelings of disbelief and discomfort, however were soon to be greatly heightened and to take on a different quality as the other group members all followed suit and repeated the same wrong answer.  At last it was the lone subjects turned to answer and, in so doing, to decide whether to conform to the unanimous majority or to remain independent.

Before running this experiment, Asch expected that most of the subjects would answer correctly despite the numerous wrong answers of all the stooges. The outcome of the experiment, then, was quite a surprise:

Notwithstanding the simple and concrete nature of the perceptual judgment task, subjects typically manifested obvious conflict and discomfort, and not infrequently, they conformed.  In fact, anywhere from 50% to 80% of the subjects . . . yielded to the erroneous majority at least once, and overall, conformity occurred on over a third of all critical trials.

Asch found that conformity pressures existed when groups were as small as four.  But here’s the really critical thing: if the majority was not unanimous in their erroneous judgments, the pressure to conform dropped dramatically:

when the target subject was provided with a single ally who remained independent, both the percentage of conforming subjects and the frequency with which they conformed dropped precipitously– even when the naïve subject and the ally were confronted with seven or eight judges who all expressed a different [and incorrect] opinion. 

Based upon exit interviews, the subjects conformed in spite their own correct perceptions, “either because they believed that their perceptions must be somehow wrong and those of the unanimous majority correct, or because they were unwilling to be a lone dissenter even when they were quite certain that the majority was wrong.”

Asch had locked onto an important principle in social psychology.  He had substantiated that individuals would feel pressured to conform to error, especially when asked to stand alone against a group.  What’s especially surprising is that the particular task used by Asch was quite easy and the group had no power to reward or punish the subject’s answer.  Also surprising was that the correct judgment “appeared so obvious that only fools or mad people could err and they had every reason to assume that the right answer appeared equally obvious to their peers.” Follow-up studies involving math problems, general knowledge items and the social and political judgments also showed that groups without any power to reward or punish dissent “can exert potent conformity pressures.”

In sum, people “find dissenting difficult when they have no comrades who will do likewise.” 

I often think of these studies by Asch on those occasions when I am put in the position of being the lone dissenter in a large public group.  In those situations, speaking up and stating the obviously correct answer can feel uncomfortable.  In fact, for some of us, the correct answer can actually feel incorrect.  There is often a risk, then, that consensus can be built as a result of social dynamics rather than by reference to clear and determinative evidence.

There are some obvious applications to the lessons taught by Asch.  For instance, it is important to have media outlets and political forums that will allow–even invite–dissent. Sometimes, everyone remains silent even though the king obviously has no clothes.  And sometimes, the courage of the first dissenter breaks a psychological dam that is holding back great rivers of dissent.

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Category: American Culture, Media, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Recommended Reading/Films/Sites

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Elevator social pressure : Dangerous Intersection | May 29, 2012
  1. Friend of Erich&#039 says:

    great post. i wish i had read that earlier in my life. much earlier in fact.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    I once participated in a similar experiment. It was for a law school class that was learning about the jury deliberation process. I and eight other people formed a "jury" for a fictional tort case. Evidence was presented to us about an injured plaintiff and a well-insured defendant, and we were then told to deliberate openly, in front of the class — the objective being to show the class how a jury functions behind the otherwise closed doors of a jury room.

    The evidence clearly indicated that the defendant was not responsible for the plaintiff's injuries and, therefore, that the plaintiff was not entitled to recover money for his injuries. Nevertheless, one by one, the jury members voted in favor of the plaintiff, and each gave their reason: because the plaintiff was badly hurt and obviously needed money to help pay the medical bills…and the defendant's insurance company clearly had the resources to satisfy that need. After about six or seven jury members all sided with the plaintiff in this manner, the vote got to me. I rejected everything the previous jury members had said and sided with the defendant, and I gave my reason: because the judge had told us to decide based on the facts, and the facts clearly showed that the defendant was innocent. I then used these facts to dismantle the arguments given by the previous jurors. The end result: the previous jurors all reversed their votes and unanimously sided with the defendant.

    Likewise, just this morning, one of the news shows interviewed the soldier who blew the whistle on the prisoner abuses in Abu Ghraib prison. The guy and his family all received death threats, but when asked if he would do it all over again, the soldier answered yes, he would, "because it needed to be done."

    Rosa Parks is another example. Who would have thought that a middle-aged woman — a seamstress by trade — would trigger a tidal wave of opposition to racial segregation and change virtually the entire nation's perception of race relations, just by refusing to give up her seat a bus?

    And despite what Protestant Fundamentalists might say about science being a "religion," scientists are notorious iconoclasts. Galileo defied the entire Catholic church when he declared the earth, not the sun, to be the center of our solar system. Darwin challenged millennia of Biblical dogma by suggesting that humans descended not from Adam and Eve, but from a prosimian ancestor. Early physicists in the field of quantum mechanics — Neils Bohr in particular — demonstrated that the objects we perceive as solid (an oak table, for example, or a steel bridge) actually consist of mostly empty space. The list goes on and on. Were it not for the scientists who brought Western civilization out of the Middle Ages during the Enlightenment and the centuries that followed, we might still have the Spanish Inquisition burning people at the stake for daring to question Catholic doctrine.

    Indeed, sometimes it takes only one dissenter to break the dam.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Want a good example of why dissenters are hesitant to speak up? This is an account of what happened to Army Sgt. Joe Darby, who exposed the atrocities at Abu Ghraib.  Click here.

    I never went back to my home. I've only been back to my town twice: for my mother's funeral and for a wedding. Even then, I was only in town as long as I needed to be. I'm not welcome there. People there don't look at the fact that I knew right from wrong. They look at the fact that I put an Iraqi before an American . . .

    [A] lot of people up there view me as a traitor. Even some of my family members think I'm a traitor. One of my uncles does, and he convinced my brother not to talk to me anymore. So my wife had to hide in a relative's house . . . .

  4. hogiemo says:

    "Silence doth mean consent" Bolt, A Man for All Seasons.

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