Rationalizing Conformity

Sometime during the 1950’s, Solomon Asch performed a psychological experiment in which participants were brought into a room and told that their vision was going to be tested. One group of participants were simply shown an image of a line, and asked to compare the length of the line to three other lines. Specifically, they were asked, “Of these three lines, which one is the same length?” Only 1 in 35 participants answered incorrectly.

Another group of participants sat with a number of other “participants,” and each participant in the room was asked the same question, in turn. The other participants in the room were all collaborators with the experimenter, and they each gave the same incorrect answer to the question. The real participants were always the last to answer the question, and 75% of the participants gave the same incorrect answer as the rest of the collaborators. These results are interesting enough that this experiment has been performed by psychology undergraduate students hundreds of times, and often with the same results. Even I’ve participated in this experiment as an undergrad, because, face it, it’s fun to watch obvious social conformity at work.

Essentially, when everybody else seemed to be giving an obviously false answer, most participants conformed to the group’s consensus. That’s startling. Here’s what’s even more startling: few, if any, of the participants recognized that they were being pressured into giving the wrong answer. None of them said, “I knew what the right answer was, but I caved in the face of social pressure.” Rather, they said things like, “My eyesight’s been bothering me today.” Or, “Line A looked ‘farther away’ than line B, and therefore the same length.” Essentially, each person involved invented a narrative that made their choice seem rational and correct. This is significant: when providing an obviously incorrect answer, participants interpreted reality in a way that allowed them to feel like they were providing the right answer. In other words, nobody feels like they are just conforming. Conformists always feel as if they have an ideological reason to do what they do, or that they have evidence that what they’re doing is correct, or that their judgment was compromised by something other than social pressure (bad eyesight, for example).

This leads me to wonder how often this happens in day-to-day life. For example, nearly everybody supports public schools, but everybody maintains an ideological or practical reason to support them (even in the face of direct evidence that they are radically failing our children, both socially and academically). Nobody admits to supporting them because it’s unpopular not to. Even staunch conservatives who vehemently resist the government takeover of the medical industry claim that education is somehow “different,” and that there are good reasons for the government to subsidize education that don’t apply to the medical industry. I have a hard time believing that this isn’t at least partly the same phenomenon we observe in Asch’s experiment.

I think this can happen in population subgroups as well. It is very unpopular for conservatives to oppose strict immigration laws, even though such measures clearly and obviously resemble the exact kinds of government action they claim to oppose. And yet, collectively and individually, we’ve invented a myriad of ways to rationalize the discrepancy, because nobody admits to simply conforming to the social consensus. Nobody experiences it that way.

I imagine that this has direct implications in our understanding of peer pressure in school. It could even happen in church. Is it possible that because everybody interprets a specific scripture a certain way, alternative (and perhaps more obvious) interpretations are invisible to us? Is it possible that we simply ignore or explain away the discrepancies between what we read on paper and how others live and interpret it, in the same way that Asch’s participants ignored and explained away the differences between what they saw and what others were saying?

I don’t know all the answers. Many reading this will probably question my examples, and perhaps even be offended by them. But you don’t have to agree with me, and that’s my point. You don’t have to believe that public education and immigration are examples of this phenomenon. However, I think it’s important to stop and think, and just consider if some of our ideologies or beliefs are simply attempts to rationalize a discrepancy between what we see and what everybody else claims to see.

For example, the majority of un-documented Mexican immigrants I meet are good, hard working people. But everyone else seems to believe that they’re a burden to the public. There’s a discrepancy there, and so there must be some sort of conspiracy that I can’t see that explains why we must deport them. And by accepting that premise, I can align myself with the majority (at least, the majority within my political subgroup) and not feel like I’m simply following the consensus. I don’t know for sure if this example is truly the way things happen. It’s just a hypothetical example that I’m using to illustrate my point, which is that none of us think we’re guilty of this. And all I know is that this leads me to pause and reconsider many of the assumptions I hold.

Fortunately, there’s a silver lining in Asch’s experiment. If just one of the collaborators gave the right answer, even if all of the other collaborators gave the wrong answer, the participant of the study would once again be more likely to give the right answer. In fact, if just one of the collaborators gave a different wrong answer than the rest, the participant felt more free to dissent as well, and give the right answer. The lesson here is clear: if you have a dissenting opinion, express it. Don’t rationalize it away. Just say what’s on your mind, even if it contradicts the consensus. Point it out if you see that the emperor’s naked, even if everybody else sees clothes. And your one dissenting voice will crack the tyranny of the majority. Just one dissenting voice makes a difference.

11 thoughts on “Rationalizing Conformity

  1. I don’t think you have any right to judge a universal phenomenon like conformity because you haven’t understood it, only condemned it. Yours is no sympathetic and searching account. Its callow dismissal.

    On the economic effect of illegals, there are actually economists and such who study these questions and try to come up with some answer more sophisticated than “the majority . . . I meet are good, hard-working people.”

    I don’t think your extrapolation from this one artifical experiment to large questions of public policy is rationally justified. After all, there are significant number of dissenters from public schooling and from enforcing immigration laws. But they’re only outside the political subgroup, you say! But then you must account for how I ended up in this subgroup and decided to value their opinion for conformity purposes and not others. And there is substantial dissent within subgroups too–political conservatives have engaged and are engaging in an often heated polemic on immigration, but this has not had the effect of changing everyone’s mind. Indeed, you apparently have just “dissented” on the immigration question, but I don’t find my own mind being changed, contra your theory.

    Sometimes–quite often–when one lonely voice stands up against the crowd, its because the lonely voice is missing something obvious and is about to get royally embarassed. I have learned this from my own sad experience.

  2. This is one of the reasons I’m saddened when communities become either almost entirely conservative or almost entirely liberal–diversity of thought is lost, and people can say with all honesty, “I don’t know a single person who voted for X,” or “I don’t know a single person who supports Y,” when a significant percentage of the American public voted for X or supports Y.

    Unfortunately, from what I can tell, our local communities are becoming less and less politically diverse.

  3. Adam—I don’t think the OP is trying to ennoble dissenting opinions as being more value for their content, nor is he trying to say that one dissenting opinion will change the minds of those who are entrenched in their outlook. I think he’s saying that simply having a dissenting opinion—right or wrong—helps those who are on the fence about things speak up.

    I believe there is a powerful force behind conformity. And this force is, at least in part I believe, what so many dissenters from the LDS church find so noxious about it. They feel forced to behave a certain way, even though the doctrines are not ones of force, because the majority in their sphere conform. They don’t feel that they have permission to be different.

    And, I find this concept extremely encouraging when commenting in places where the prevailing opinion is strongly against mine. It is easy to feel beaten up about being the lone voice, but it nice to know that perhaps speaking up, whether I’m right or wrong is immaterial for this purpose, gives others permission to step back and formulate their own opinions, whether they are in agreement with mine or not.

  4. There are plenty of conformists. Also plenty of anti-conformists, which brings to mind Joseph Conrad’s description of one worthless troublemaker in The Nigger of the Narcissus:
    “He was the man that cannot steer, that cannot splice, that dodges the work on dark nights; that, aloft, holds on frantically with both arms and legs, and swears at the wind, the sleet, the darkness; the man who curses the sea while others work. The man who is the last out and the first in when all hands are called. The man who can’t do most things and won’t do the rest. The pet of philanthropists and self-seeking landlubbers. The sympathetic and deserving creature that knows all about his rights, but knows nothing of courage, of endurance, and of the unexpressed faith, of the unspoken loyalty that knits together a ship’s company.”

    Regarding the line length experiment, I suppose someone at some point has tried this experiment with incentives, testing how much others’ opinions can sway when an incorrect estimation would cost $5 or $50. We have to choose our battles, and being right just for the sake of being right may lose the victor more than he wins.

  5. “For example, the majority of un-documented Mexican immigrants I meet are good, hard working people.”

    Consider in what settings you meet immigrants, then consider all the settings in which you wouldn’t meet them. Here’s something I looked up a couple years ago:


    “In 2009, 67.9 percent of the foreign born were in the labor force, little changed from 2008. Over the year, the labor force participation rate of native-born workers fell by 0.7 percentage point to 64.9 percent.” [Not much difference.]

    “The labor force participation rate of both foreign- and native-born fathers with children under age 18 was about 94 percent.” [No difference.]

    “In 2009, foreign-born mothers with children under age 18 were less likely to be labor force participants than native-born mothers–61.2 versus 74.0 percent. Among women with children under age 3, the participation rate for the foreign born was 45.8 percent, while that for the native born was 64.9 percent.” [This is a favorable characteristic of immigrant mothers and families, but not one that most of us would notice since it is manifest in their homes and not around us. Probably, it is a surprise to many who thought all immigrant mothers are like the ones they meet who are doing work for them.]

  6. SilverRain,
    after I offered an alternative view to LDSPhil’s, by coming back and arguing against me aren’t you suppressing my value to the people on the fence? Shame, shame.

  7. Adam,

    There’s a fence? Is that why people keep talking about “them” without actually seeing them?

    Mr. Greenwood, tear down that wall! 😉

  8. Will no one be brave enough to take a stand and say that Silver Rain isn’t silly, at least not compared to Frank Pellett? Well, I will.

    [Storms of wild applause]

  9. nearly everybody supports public schools

    Whoops! Totally false, in the US anyway. And it’s one of my biggest problems with American culture: willingness to buy into the myth that public schools can’t work (on principle), hence we should just flush them down the toilet. And, if you want US education to keep falling behind other countries, please just keep saying the control line is the same length as line “A”, like the author of this post tells you to.

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