One of my favourite subjects at university was social psychology, the study of how people influence each other. An experiment that we ran in small groups as part of this class, literally changed my life.
One of us was the experimenter, while the other five students would be confederates, pretending to be naive subjects in the experiment, which was advertised around the campus as a ‘Vision Experiment’. On the appointed day and time, the five fake subjects, which included me, arrived at the psychology lab along with the real subject, who had responded to the advertisement. In our case it was a sweet, first year English literature student called Karen.
It was sort of fun pretending to be strangers while we listened with straight faces to our 'experimenter' friend, who explained the task. We were told we would be seated in a row and shown a series of slides on a screen. Each slide would have a vertical line on the left, and three lines of different lengths grouped together on the right, labelled A, B or C. One of these would be the same length as the target line. Our task was simply to state, one at a time, which of the three lines on the right was the same length as the target line on the left.
We took our places in the row and the lights were dimmed. As each slide was presented, one by one we called out the line that matched the target line. Karen had been deliberately allocated the seat at the end of the row, so she was always the last person to answer. But here’s the twist.
While we initially called out the correct answers, we had privately agreed that after slide 4, we would unanimously start choosing an incorrect line. So poor Karen would sit there listening to the rest of us call out the same wrong response. I was second last, sitting next to her, and expected her to start laughing and make a comment such as, “Are you guys blind or something!” But to my surprise, when it was her turn, she paused, and called out the same incorrect line as we had. This behaviour, where Karen called out the same wrong answer as us, continued for many of the slides.
At the end of the experiment when the lights were turned up, we awkwardly turned to Karen and said, “Hey we have something to tell you”. We then explained we were psychology students running an experiment on social pressure, and had deliberately called out the wrong answers to see if she would conform. Karen turned pale and muttered a few sentences in embarrassment. While I feel bad about this every time I think about it, I hope her involvement in the experiment ultimately had a positive impact on her. It certainly did on me. (By the way, these types of deception experiments were banned the following year because of possible negative effects on the subjects).
In the debriefing sessions, we learned that we had replicated the findings of a famous study on the power of conformity by psychologist, Solomon Asch. I was amazed to learn that 75% of people gave incorrect answers to some of the lines. This research identified that people tend to conform because of a desire to fit in with a group, or a belief that other people are smarter or better informed than they are.
After learning how social pressure often leads good people to do bad or stupid things, I have always striven to think independently, and I encourage you to do so. I am grateful that my father was also a great role model in this regard as he always called out BS when he saw it.
Here’s some tips for those who value the importance of clear, independent thinking:
#1. If something doesn’t seem right, remember this is your brain giving you a message. Try to identify what doesn’t make sense. I find just asking myself, “What’s going on here?” can be helpful. You may realise the concern is not important after all, but you may discover there is indeed something going on that needs to be addressed.
#2. Learn to raise concerns in the form of tentative questions or clarifying statements. For instance, “Could you please just explain that to me a little more?” or “I’d find it useful if you could tell me how you arrived at that conclusion.” One of my team, who is extremely smart, often says “Sorry to ask what is probably a dumb question but…..?” (It usually turns out that her ‘dumb question’ is not so dumb.)
#3. Remind yourself that you probably know as much as most other people, and that just because they say something you don’t understand, it doesn’t mean they are right. Speak up and ask for clarification.
#4. Maintain a growth mindset, which can be defined as trying to improve, rather than prove ourself. When we try to prove ourself we are more likely to fall into the trap of saying things we think will please others or make us look good, rather than seeking the best solutions.
#5. If you are a lone voice in a situation which you believe is not right, seek an ally. There is great power in having supporters when you are trying to raise important issues or make useful changes.
#6. Don’t mindlessly adopt the latest fads, assumptions, or cliches just because others have. The fact is, these are often contrived by people who don’t know what they are talking about, have a personal agenda, or are trying to make money by bamboozling us. Use your common sense and don't do or say things just because others are.
#7. Develop a philosophy of life based on your personal experience of what works and feels right. And use this to guide your decisions and actions. I have also found it helpful to seek out mentors and role models who seem to be motivated by a search for the truth, rather than seeking name, fame or money. In conclusion, while the influence of a group can be seductive, keep your wits about you and trust your instincts because, if something doesn't seem right, it probably isn't.
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