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An extremely instructive experiment

Can you express your opinion when everyone thinks differently from you?

2021 April 21 | by Arduino Mancini Effective thinking

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.

Asch later introduced some variations in the experiment and showed that the number of people who contradicted the subject’s answers was of crucial importance:

  • If only one member of the group contradicted the subject, the effect was insignificant and the subject had no difficulty in retaining his independence;
  • But if the opposition consisted of two people, the subject’s exposure to wrong answers increased to 13.6 %;
  • With three opponents, the failure curve rose to 31.8%, after which the growth became less rapid and any further increase in the number of opponents brought the percentage up to 36.8%;
  • On the other hand, the presence of a support person was an important factor in resisting group pressure and preserving independence: under these conditions, the subject’s incorrect responses fell to a quarter of the previous amount.

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.

Here some typical reactions recorded:

  • “I feel I am right, but my reasoning tells me I am wrong because I doubt that so many people can be wrong and I alone am right”;
  • “It is unlike any other experience in my life, I will not forget it as long as I live”.

As Asch noted,

the most frightening factor in the blind surrender of his subjects
is the deep-rooted desire to agree with the group!

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.

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