Solomon Asch was one of the greatest psychologists of the past century. In his autobiography, he recalls from his childhood an event on the evening of his first Passover. He saw his grandmother setting a glass of wine on the table.

"I asked my uncle, who was sitting next to me, why the door was being opened. He replied, ‘The prophet Elijah visits this evening every Jewish home and takes a sip of wine from the cup reserved for him.’ I was amazed at this news and repeated, ‘Does he really come? Does he really take a sip?’ My uncle said, ‘If you watch very closely, when the door is opened you will see – you watch the cup – you will see that the wine will go down a little.’ And that’s what happened. My eyes were riveted upon the cup of wine. I was determined to see whether there would be a change. And to me it seemed ... that indeed something was happening at the rim of the cup, and the wine did go down a little."[i]

Many years later, as a professor at Harvard University, Asch’s memory of this event set the stage for one of the most influential experiments in social psychology. In the wake of the Holocaust, when psychologists were asking how it could be that so many people succumbed to Hitler’s will, Asch reflected on the power of social influence. He set out to uncover its effects.

Imagine you have agreed to take part in Asch’s experiment. You duly turn up at the expected time. You enter the room and are asked to take your place around a table. There are already five others sitting there. The experimenter explains that you are all taking part in a study of visual perception. He shows you three lines of different lengths and asks you to say whether each of these lines in turn is longer, shorter or the same length as another line that he shows you. Around the table, one by one, everyone gives the same correct answer for the first line. Everything seems straightforward for the second line, too. But for the third line the first person calls out with what seems like the wrong answer. You think the person must have made a mistake. But the second person also gives the same wrong answer – as does the third. You, of course, are looking hard at the lines and wondering what is going on. Then the fourth and fifth people both agree with the others. It is now your turn to give your answer. You look harder at the lines. Are you sure you are right? Do you go with your own eyes?

Unknown to you, this is not an experiment on visual perception. Everyone else in the room is part of a set-up to test whether you will conform to the wisdom of the group. Remarkably, 76 per cent of participants conformed at least once.[ii] Like the young Solomon Asch, they gave answers that defied what their eyes were telling them. Perhaps they genuinely began to doubt their own senses or, more likely, they went along with the group simply to fit in. In so many situations in everyday life we are, like Asch’s participants, faced with a choice of whether to speak our mind or go along with others. Subsequent studies have confirmed again and again how susceptible many of us are to the power of social influence.

If you are a student of psychology you will probably have come across this famous experiment. So, what’s new?  Well, what is often overlooked is the fact that 24 per cent of Asch’s participants that did not conform, even once.

I find it remarkable that relatively little attention has been paid to asking what makes these people different from those that did conform.  What are their personality characteristics? 

Positive psychologists are now beginning to pay attention to this question with the suggestion that the opposite side of the coin to conformity is authenticity.  Authentic people are able to overcome their desires to fit in and be part of the crowd. However, no research has yet tested whether those who score higher on authenticity are indeed more likely to resist social pressures to conform, but that would be a great experiment for any budding researchers looking for an exciting and cutting edge project.

The above is an extract from Stephen Joseph's new book: Authentic. How to be yourself and why it matters. 

[i] Aron, A. and Aron, E. (1989), The Heart of Social Psychology, 2nd edn Lexington, MA: Lexington Books. See page 27

[ii] Asch, S.E. (1955, November), ‘Opinions and social pressure’, Scientific American, 31, 5