When you quietly agree with the statements of a group, how does conforming change you? Are you able to retain your original views? Or does conforming alter the way you see the world?

Interest in the classics skyrocketed this week. With discussions of fake news and alternative facts, George Orwell’s 1984 flew to the top of the bestsellers lists. I also reread a classic last weekend. I turned to Solomon Asch’s (1956) Studies of Independence and Conformity. What led me back to this classic of psychological research? A report of a survey in the Washington Post (by Brian Schaffner and Samantha Luks on January 25th).

The Washington Post survey concerned the crowd photos from Trump’s inauguration and Obama’s 2009 inauguration. I imagine you’ve seen these photos by now (but if you check this link to the WaPo article, you can see them again). The photos led to a variety of competing claims about crowd size. Let me be clear: there is an objective reality. More people attended Obama’s 2009 inauguration than Trump’s. We have to start with this and be able to clearly state that there were substantially more people in one photo than the other. Even if you’re unhappy with this statement or think I’ve made a political statement, please continue reading. I promise my point is more general than a complaint about certain political perspectives.

The researchers conducted two different versions of the survey on crowd size. In one, they showed both photos to people and asked which was a photo from Trump’s inauguration. 41% of Trump voters claimed the Obama crowd as Trump’s – a mistake that few Clinton voters and non-voters made. That’s at least a little interesting – Trump voters claimed the larger crowd for their guy.

But I found the other version of the survey much more interesting. In this version, the researchers correctly labeled the photos and asked which picture had more people in the crowd. Almost no Clinton voters and non-voters made errors – they correctly noted more people in the Obama inauguration crowd scene. Surprisingly, 15% of Trump voters stated there were more people in the Trump inauguration picture.

What could lead people to make this error? In the article, Schaffner and Luks suggested this reflected people knowingly giving an incorrect answer to support their political position. After all, how could someone look at those photos and see it any other way?

That’s why I reread Solomon Asch last weekend. Asch offered another explanation.

In his studies of independence and conformity, Asch would pit a single individual’s perceptual judgment against a unanimous majority with a different judgment. The judgment did not concern something ambiguous. The judgment didn’t concern a situation in which reasonable people could disagree. The judgments concerned “a simple and clear matter of fact in the immediate environment” (Asch, 1956, p. 1). Asch asked people to judge the length of lines. I’ve redrawn one of the perceptual judgments that Asch used (see the pictures). In this case, there was a 3 inch line as the standard and the task was decide which other line matched it. Line A was 3 and ¾ inches long; line B was 4 and ¼ inches long; and line C was 3 inches long. It is an easy task if you judge it by yourself.

Ira Hyman
Source: Ira Hyman

But what happens to your judgment when everyone else in the group selects the same wrong answer, one after the other, just before it is your turn to publicly state your view?

Asch had confederates (people working with the experimenter) choose the same wrong answer on some trials. Six people gave their answers verbally before the actual experimental participant. There were lots of trials when the confederates gave the correct answers. The question is how the real participants responded when everyone else selected the same wrong answer. When alone and facing the majority, people often incorrectly followed the majority. On average people selected the wrong line about 33% of the time. Very few people never followed the majority (although there were a few who never succumbed to conformity).

Ira Hyman
Source: Ira Hyman

This conformity looks very similar to the judgment of crowd size. If Trump voters have heard several people state that Trump’s crowd was larger, that may have led them to make the wrong perceptual judgment too.

Asch also conducted post-experiment interviews. These interviews provided some of the most important information. During the experiment, some people felt that the majority were making errors. This made them uncomfortable. They wondered why they didn’t see things the same way. They worried they were experiencing an illusion. Some of these people reported that they began to doubt their own judgments. Being the accurate individual in a crowd of people selecting an error frequently made people miserable.

The people who frequently yielded to the majority provided different responses during the interviews. Many stated that they reported what they saw. This is much deeper than merely conforming; than simply going along with the crowd. They believed the wrong answer. They did not think that they made mistakes.

This error is fundamentally different from just reporting the wrong answer while maintaining your own understanding of what is right. People sometimes fully believed the lying confederates rather than their own eyes. They allowed the judgments of others to replace the direct visual information. I suspect some Trump voters fully see more people in the Trump crowd photo than in the Obama crowd photo.

Although Asch didn’t conduct research on the long-term consequences of accepting the incorrect information, other researchers have investigated this. Put simply: People will remember the misleading information rather than the truth. Many people are probably convinced that more people attended Trump’s inauguration – in spite of having previously looked at the photographic evidence. This is the real power of conforming in the face of repeated lies from a majority.

Although this example of conformity concerns Trump voters, conformity will influence the judgment of all people – conservatives and liberals; republicans and democrats. Conformity is an equal opportunity cognitive failure. The majority views, especially when repeated, will infect the minds of everyone. For this reason, we need to constantly teach and re-inforce critical thinking. If we want people to engage in rational thinking and discourse, we must agree on the facts. We must constantly call out people who would present alternative facts as truth.

So I have been rereading the classics. As a cognitive psychologist, Solomon Asch’s work is a classic that feel incredibly modern in this moment.

References

Asch, S. E. (1956) Studies of independence and conformity: !. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 70.