We often see people who criticise others for being “sheeple” – people who blindly conform to the majority and follow someone like sheep do. They protest that as human beings, we have a right and duty to exercise free will, sticking up for one’s own opinions. However, according to an infamous experiment from the 1950’s, we know that human beings are bound by our natural instincts to be social creatures, obeying the collective will of the group we are in.
In 1953, Solomon Asch designed an experiment to study the power of conformity. He told participants that they will be taking part in a vision test with a group of people. They were shown a picture depicting lines of various lengths, asking which line on the right matched the line on the left:
It was a simple task of matching the line to another line of the same length with the answer being blatantly obvious. But as with so many psychological experiments, there was a trick. The group of “participants” were actually in on the experiment other than the one subject. During the experiment, the group would all put their hands up on the blatantly wrong answer instead of the actual correct one. How did this action affect the subject’s answer?
Although it seems clear that the answer is A in the given example, when in a situation where the majority of people put their hands up for “B” or “C”, up to 32% of the subjects gave the incorrect answer. No matter how large the differences were between the sizes of the lines, the results did not change. Although 32% is only a third of the study group, one must bear in mind that this experiment only looked at black-and-white scenarios of lines of different length. If the issue at hand was much more “grey” – such as an ethical dilemma – it can be extrapolated that the person would easily sway and conform to the majority opinion.
The reason for the level of conformity exhibited in the experiment is quite simple: it’s the one who is different that gets left out in the cold.