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Peer pressure

Mark Pilkington
Thursday May 27, 2004
The Guardian

What would it take for you to distrust the evidence of your own eyes? Only seven other people, according to a study conducted in the 1950s by the psychologist Solomon Asch. Interested in the extent to which the pressure to conform affects our judgment, Asch devised a simple but devastatingly effective experiment.
The test subject sits in a room with seven other people. The experimenter shows them all an image of a vertical line, X, followed by three more lines, A, B and C, one of which is the same length as X.

The people in the room are asked, one at a time, to state which of the lines A, B and C is the same length as line X. The process is repeated several times during the session.

Initially, everybody in the room selects the correct line, but over the course of several rounds, the others begin to choose lines that are quite clearly not the same length as line X.

In fact, the other seven people in the room are in cahoots with the experimenter. Six of them are always asked to make their choices first, giving the test subject plenty of time to consider his or her own decision.

Despite the simple nature of the question, more than 35% of the people tested provided an answer that they felt to be incorrect. This has nothing to do with visual impairment: in control experiments, people chose correctly almost 100% of the time, and during the actual experimental sessions, test subjects would remark on how clearly wrong the other people in the room were.

Asch concluded that either the subjects didn't trust their own judgment when confronted with a number of opposing opinions, or they were uncomfortable voicing a conflicting opinion against a majority decision.

He concluded that, for them, being accepted was more important than being correct.

Crucially, if even one other person agreed with the subject, then the subject was much more likely to make the right decision.

The experiment has been repeated since with similar results. In one version, 58% of pupils in a study agreed with the statement "the right of freedom of speech should be suspended when the government feels threatened". When questioned individually, all of them disagreed.


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