The Pressure to Conform

Suppose that you saw somebody being shown a pair of cards. On one of them there is a line, and on the other three lines. Of these three, one is obviously longer than the line on the other card, one is shorter, and one the same length. The person to whom these cards are being shown is asked to point to the line on the second card which is the same length as the one on the first. To your surprise, he makes one of the obviously wrong choices. You might suppose that he, or she, perhaps suffers from distorted vision, or is insane, or perhaps merely cussed. But you might be wrong in all these suggestions; you might be observing a sane, ordinary citizen, just like yourself. Because, by fairly simple processes, sane and ordinary citizens can be induced to deny the plain evidence of their senses-not always, but often. In recent years psychologists have carried out some exceedingly interesting experiments in which this sort of thing is done.

The general procedure was first devised by Dr Asch in the United States. What happens is this: Someone is asked to join a group who are helping to study the discrimination of length. The victim, having agreed to this seemingly innocent request, goes to a room where a number of people-about half a dozen-and the experimenter are seated. Unbeknown to our victim, none of the other people in the room is a volunteer like himself; they are all in league with the experimenter. A pair of cards, like those I have described, is produced; and everyone in turn is asked which of the three lines on the second card is equal to the line on the first. They all, without hesitation, pick-as they have been told to pick-the same wrong line. Last of all comes the turn of our volunteer. In many cases the volunteer, faced with this unanimity, denies the plain evidence of his senses, and agrees.

An ingenious variation of this experiment was devised by Stanley Milgram of Harvard. He used sounds instead of lines, and the subjects were merely asked to state which of two successive sounds lasted longer. The volunteer would come into a room where there was a row of five cubicles with their doors shut, and coats hanging outside, and one open cubicle for him. He would sit in it and don earphones provided. He would hear the occupants of the other cubicles tested in turn, and each would give a wrong answer. But the other cubicles were, in fact, empty, and what he heard were tape-recordings manipulated by the experimenter. Milgram conducted a whole series of experiments in this way, in which he varied considerably the pressure put upon the subjects. As expected, their conformity varied with the pressure, but, over all, he clearly showed that, faced with the unanimous opinion of the group they were in, people could be made to deny the obvious facts of the case in anything up to 75 per cent of the trials.

The victim of brainwashing can be induced to assert falsehoods, as we well know. But he is subjected to terrible and continuous stress: to hunger, sleeplessness, cold, and fear. The people we have been discussing were free of all these things, and subjected to nothing more than the complete agreement of the group in which they found themselves. Nevertheless, they too could be made to assert manifest falsehoods. I find this more than a trifle alarming -and very thought-provoking.

You may reply that there is no cause for alarm, because in real situations the total unanimity of a group is rare. The more usual case concerns the effects of what we might call a 'pressure group'. This has been examined, at least partially, by W. M. and H. H. Kassarjian, in California. They used the 'group in a room' and 'lines on cards' situation; and I imagine that they must be kindly people, because they made things much easier for their volunteers. In the first place, the genuine volunteers were in a majority: twenty out of thirty. Secondly, the volunteers never had to make their selections out loud, but always enjoyed the anonymity of paper and pencil. The experimenter explained that some people would be asked to declare their choices publicly, and asked only his primed collaborators. Thus each volunteer heard the views of only a third of the group he was in. This third was unanimous, and the volunteers probably concluded that they expressed a majority view, but they were not put in a glaring minority of one, and their choice was secret. Nevertheless, a substantial distortion was still produced: almost, though not quite, as large as in the harsher situations we looked at first. So there is only small comfort here.

I am aware that there is grave danger in taking results obtained in the special and carefully simplified situation of the laboratory, or of the clinic, and applying them directly to the immensely complicated affairs of normal life. But these results seem to me so interesting and so suggestive that, in spite of the obvious risks, it may be worth while to see where they may shed a little light. In speculating thus, I am stepping outside the proper bounds of scientific rigour; so, if I only make myself a laughing-stock, it is my own fault.

Whether one line is or is not the same length as another is a matter fairly easy to judge as a rule. But many things-and many more important things-are by no means so clear cut. If we are asked which of two cars or two schools is the better, or which of two 'pop' songs or two politicians is the worse, we may be genuinely perplexed to answer. We may guess that in such doubtful cases the 'majority effect' or the 'pressure group effect' would be even more pronounced. Recent experiments by A. E. M. Seaborne suggest that they would not always be, but it seems generally likely. Can we observe such effects taking place around us now, or having taken place in the past? I think we can, and that they help us a little to understand the massive inertia of commonly held ideas, and the fantastic standing of some more ephemeral ones.

(From an article by Max Hammerton in The Listener, October 18th, 1962.)