Do You Have the Courage to Dissent?
Ever felt like you disagree with everyone around you, but don’t dare to speak up? These famous experiments by Solomon Asch and Richard Crutchfield show you may not be as alone as you think.
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Chris Freiman: When you disagree with everyone around you, do you have the courage to speak up? Most people find that hard to do. We feel pressure to go along with what those around us are saying or doing, and we don’t have to rely on our personal experiences to know this is true. A number of experiments reveal a powerful human desire to conform.
In the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a famous conformity experiment. In this study, a test subject is asked to sit with a group of other people. He thinks everyone else is a test subject, like he is, but the others are really confederates of the researcher, who have been told to give certain answers in the experiment.
The researcher presents a line drawn on a board. Beside it are three lines of different lengths. He asks, “Which of the three lines is the same length as the first line?” The test is designed so that the answer is obvious. The subject has been positioned so that he hears most of the others give their answer out loud before he does. The group repeats this process for many different sets of lines.
In the first few rounds, everyone gives the correct answer, but then something strange starts to happen. In about two thirds of the rounds that follow, everyone ahead of the subject gives the same wrong answer. The subject faces a dilemma. Does he give the answer he believes is correct or go along with the group?
Asch repeated variations of this experiment with over 120 subjects, and some troubling trends emerged. When the rest of the group was answering incorrectly, 37% of the subjects’ responses conformed with the incorrect group response; 75% of subjects caved to peer pressure and gave the wrong answer at least once. That means only one out of every four test subjects was willing to consistently voice dissent.
Keep in mind, there was no overt pressure to conform. There were no rewards for giving the correct answer and no punishments for giving the wrong answer. The stakes were low, but the social pressure was high, nonetheless. Subjects were asked afterwards why they had chosen to give the wrong answer. Some figured, “These people can’t all be wrong, so I must be seeing things wrong.” Others remained convinced their own answer was right, but they didn’t want to disagree with the rest of the group.
The line length test seems quite different from the situations we face in everyday life, but we see similar findings when people are asked to make more meaningful judgments, too. Psychologist Richard Crutchfield asked subjects to consider the following statement: “Free speech, being a privilege rather than a right, it is proper for a society to suspend free speech whenever it feels itself threatened.” Among subjects answering alone, only 19% agreed, but when faced with a group unanimously affirming the statement, 58% of subjects agreed.
These experiments reveal a powerful tendency to conform with those around us, even when that means we act against what we actually think is right, but there is a ray of hope. In a variation of his original experiment, Asch instructed a single confederate to give the right answer. That means the test subject still held the minority view, but there was now one other person on his side. In this scenario, subjects conformed only one quarter as often as when they faced a unanimous majority.
This suggests an important lesson. If you’re in the uncomfortable position of disagreeing with the people around you, try to have the courage to speak up. There’s a good chance others will be emboldened by your example and do the same. Overcoming the pull of conformity is hard, but when the stakes are high, and the majority is wrong, the courage of one person can make all the difference.