Have you ever experienced a feeling of discomfort in maintaining your opinion when everyone around you has a different view?
No? Good for you!
But if you have felt embarrassed at least once, you should be aware that it has been a difficult experience for many others.
Anyone who tries to manipulate our thinking goes along with specific characteristics: when our opinion does not match that of the group we are part of, we tend to abandon our independence in order to feel in harmony with the rest of the group.
The psychologist Salomon Asch has shown that being a member of a group is a sufficient condition to modify a person’s behaviour and, to a certain extent, their judgements and visual perceptions.
I summarise below one of his famous experiments.
Groups of 7 or 9 university students (subjects of the experiment) were shown two tables (see figure).
On the first was a single vertical line and on the second three vertical lines of different lengths.
The students were told that this was an experiment in visual perception and that their task would be to identify the line on the second board that corresponded in length to the line on the first board.
This is how Asch himself describes the course of events.
The experiment starts smoothly.
The students give their answers according to the order in which they entered the room: in the first round each person chooses the same corresponding line.
Then a second set of boards, different from the first one, is displayed and again the group’s choice is unanimous.
In the third round, an unexpected event occurs: one of the last respondents disagrees with all the others in his choice of the corresponding line.
He appears surprised, indeed incredulous, about the disagreement. In the following round, the subject disagrees again, while the others remain unanimous in their choice.
The subject is increasingly worried and hesitant as the disagreement continues on successive trials: he hesitates before giving his answer and speaks in a low voice, or smiles in an embarrassed manner.
The dissenting subject is unaware that the other students have previously received instructions on the way to give unanimously wrong answers.
He is therefore the only real person in the experiment and finds himself in an alarming situation: either he has to contradict the group’s real opinion and thus appear strangely confused, or he has to doubt the evidence of his own senses.
Under these circumstances, 36.8% of the subjects choose the second alternative and accept the group’s misleading opinion.
It is not elementary to fully realise the effect of an extraordinary event, such as an earthquake, without actually experiencing it: the same may be true of the effect of Asch’s experiment.
At the end of subsequent trials, all subjects were informed of the true purpose of the experiment; participants showed varying degrees of emotional distress, ranging from mild distress to something similar to depersonalisation.
Even those who did not submit to the group’s opinion and continued to trust their perceptions usually did so with the nagging concern that they might be wrong.
As Asch noted,
The urge to surrender one’s independence, to renounce the evidence of one’s senses to have the reassuring satisfaction of feeling in harmony with the group, is the essence that fuels the actions of demagogues, dictators and those who constantly try to manipulate others.
Is there a method to generate a kind of permanent immunity against all forms of propaganda and brainwashing?
In my opinion preparing yourself, developing critical thinking and self-confidence.
Don’t you think so?
Asch’s experiment is freely taken from the book “How Real Is Real?” by Paul Watzlawick.