Q: Coming off the heels of New York Fashion Week, I realized that when one person in New York does something or wears something, a flock of others mirror that behavior. Why in group settings do people give into conformity so easily? ? Ivanna Majic, New York City, 27 years old
A. Conformity is a formidable psychological phenomenon that strikes when we are least aware. Our reader is right, in some ways. The other day I was standing at a cross walk on Kenmare and Spring Street, waiting for the light to signal it was my turn to cross. When I noticed the throng of people surrounding me begin to walk, I did the same, without checking to see if the light had blinked white. All of the sudden I heard car horns reverberating in my ears and people shuffling their feet. It turns out, the light had not changed, but we all began to cross the street together, giving in to one person's decision to make the early move. There were nearly ten of us at that light. I wondered, would the conformity phenomenon decrease if there were less people?
Psychologist Solomon Asch, the father of conformity studies, begged to answer these questions with a few notable experiments. In Asch's experiments he asked students to participate in a verbal vision test, with eight individuals in the room. Seven of those people were confederates, which means that they were really working for the psychology lab, but ostensibly posing as unknowing participants. One person was a naïve participant, who was completely unaware that the others were confederates.
The test presented visuals of three vertical lines of varying sizes - one small, medium, and large. The participants were then shown another line, and asked whether it looked like the small, medium, or large line. The answer was always obvious. But, when asked to state their answer out loud, the confederates always provided the wrong answer. The naïve participant sat at the end of the row, and when it was his or her turn to state an answer, he or she gave into social pressure and also said the wrong answer. Asch knew that the participant recognized the correct answer because he or she was asked to also write their answer down on paper.
The power of conformity was so strong that one third of the time, naïve participants stated the incorrect answer out loud, even when they knew it was wrong. Interestingly, as the number of confederates decreased, so did pressure to conform. When interviewed afterwards, participants stated that even though they knew the answer was wrong, they conformed for fear of being ostracized. The other reason for conforming was that participants felt that the group must have had information that he or she was lacking. Thus, they were demonstrating informational influence, a type of conformity in which people use information from other people to inform their own decisions.
This study provides critical implications for the way we behave in group settings. For one thing, we greatly fear being ostracized, to the extent that we will turn off our internal instincts and blatantly provide wrong information. However, in reality, people are not confederates working for an experimenter, so conforming to behavior you know is wrong could put you in a perilous position. It might be scary to go against the grain, but the payoff for being yourself and listening to your instincts is well worth the risk. The only way to create unique works of art, or generate interesting and innovative ideas, is to think freely without fear of judgment or social pressure. Don't cross the street just because the people next to you are in a hurry. Take your time and think outside of Solomon Asch's lines.
Kristine Keller received her Master's degree in Psychology from New York University.