Skewing the Tribe

imposter_viaalexbellConformity is one of those tricky things: we like to give it the side-eye, but we also like to practice it, often without even knowing we’re doing it. We enjoy the feeling of being “right” with everyone else. The trouble is, it’s really hard to think differently than the rest of a group—so the feeling of being “right” isn’t really a feeling of being right at all. It’s just a feeling of being the same.

There is a series of psychological experiments that speak to the question of conformity. Collectively, these are known as the Asch Paradigm, and the most oft-repeated result of these studies is that, given enough peer pressure, a large number of people will give obviously wrong answers to questions. For example, when asked a simple question like “which of these three lines is the same length as this fourth line?” people were much more likely to pick one that was obviously longer or shorter if a group of other people confidently chose the wrong line first. In other words, seeing other people give the wrong answer with confidence made them change their own answer—and even doubt their own judgment.

You can tell this as a story about how we succumb to the pressure of the group and espouse ideas that are wrong. But I think it is more interesting as a story about how we impose conformity on others—about how confident we are in our views, especially in groups, and how viciously we ostracize people who propose something different.

Most of us, when we hear about the experiment above, fall victim to the Dunning-Krueger effect. We think that unlike the subjects in these studies, we would have both the perspective and the fortitude to give the right answer, even in the face of group pressure. We, like most people, think we’re above average.

And we, like most people, imagine the group as faceless. These are strangers. These are unknowns. Imagine, instead, that this is a group of your closest friends. Will you still be so sure everyone else is wrong? Will you not question your judgment? Will you not even consider that they all know something you don’t? I think you wouldn’t be a very good friend if you didn’t. After all, as the saying goes, if all your friends tell you you’re a duck, check for feathers.

Now, I happen to think doubting yourself is a critical part of being a good friend, a good citizen, and a sane human being. I happen to think being so certain that you dismiss other ideas out of hand is foolish, pompous, and overbearing.

Which is also why I think this is more interesting as a story about the group. When we say that one member of the group is willing to give a wrong answer under pressure from others, what we’re really saying is that when we think as a group, we value sameness over rightness. We’re saying that, in groups, we prefer to be alike so much that we have consequences for being different. We’re saying that we’ve internalized those consequences so deeply that we fear them preemptively, and even change what we believe to avoid them. That we even ignore evidence to avoid them. That we even come to believe ideas that are obviously wrong—to avoid the consequences of being different.

So instead of imagining yourself as the participant in this study and thinking about how you would have resisted the wrong answer, imagine yourself as a different member of the group. Imagine what you would do when one person stepped up to say the group was wrong. Would you have been open to that possibility? Would you have been willing to question your original answer, even though the weight of opinion seemed to be on your side? Or would you have dismissed the one outlier who offered another view?

You probably still think, as most of us do, that you would not be the person who laughs with derision, that you would instead say “that’s interesting—tell me more.” But thinking it isn’t enough; we have to practice it.

Later experiments in this series showed that people were much more willing to give the right answer, even in the face of overwhelming disagreement, when they had an ally. Even just one ally, willing to look at the evidence and call the view of the group into question, can be enough to break conformity.

So don’t worry so much about being the lone voice who stands up to wrong-headed views. We’re probably all going to be that voice less often than we should.

Instead, worry about when you might be wrong along with everyone else. Worry about being the ally.


Image Credit: Alex Bell

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