Thursday, January 11, 2007

Breaking conformity

Even though Milgram’s is the most famous, it’s not my favorite. No, my favorite psychology experiment is Asch’s on conformity. Here, in the typical setup Asch would have a vertical line drawn on one card and three other lines on a second card, and would ask the group of subjects (all within earshot of each other) questions about the relative lengths of the lines.

The twist is that all but one of the subjects were actually confederates, who purposely gave incorrect answers. The point was to measure how much peer pressure (or more broadly, the desire to conform) would cause people to give obviously false answers. What’s really interesting is that after the fact, the subjects would attribute their obvious mistakes to poor eyesight or some other personal failing. They didn’t seem to realize that the wrong answers of everyone else in the group made it very uncomfortable to give what was clearly the right answer.

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