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Description: Do you remember a time when you and your friends did something a bit ill-advised or a bit sketchy and when your parents asked why you went along you said, “because all my friends were doing it”? And, of course, one or the other or both of your parents said …. what? …. “if your friends jumped off a bridge would you jump too?” The parental point was some version of the belief that sometimes going along with a group just because it is the group is not smart or responsible (or even legal). We are supposed to be individuals, to make our own decisions, and not get dragged along by the mob that our parents were worried our peers could become. Our parents thought they had reason for concern. Have you (you must have) heard about the Asche conformity experiments? Solomon Asch, a social psychologist after the second world war, was trying to figure out why people go along with a group even if the group seems to be making bad decisions. He had a group of university students come into his lab and do a simple line judgement task. They would be shown one line and asked to pick which of several other lines was the same length as the select line (one was, and one was longer, and another was shorter). Unbeknownst to the one naive participant in the study all of the other “participants” were confederates of the experimenter (working for him and told what to say). The one naïve participant was seated so they always answered last in the group. (Have a look: ). If you were in that group and everyone else in the group was making what seemed to you to be a wrong choice (picking a line that did NOT match the test line) what would you do when your turn came along? The classic finding in that study was that most people go along with the group some of the time, even when they believe the group is wrong (and even when they are led to believe they are all just a bunch of research volunteers and not otherwise a group. So, we go along with groups even when it is barely a group (see why our parents were worried?). Just how strong is this minimal group membership effect? What if you never actually met the other members of your “group”? What do you think would happen then? Once you have your answer in mind, read the article linked below that describes an recent experiment in minimal group formation and impact.

Source: People adopt made-up social rules to be part of a group, John Timmer, ARS Techinca.

Date: December 28, 2018

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 Article Link:

So, why is it that we seem to be “built” to notice the groups we are in and to go along with those groups in areas where we could just as easily have our own opinion (so not when the group is made up of friends whose positive regard we care about)? Well, as you think about that consider this…. Before Solomon Asch was doing his early research, another social psychologist named Muzafer Sherif was also conducting a study. He placed research volunteers into a dark (light sealed) room and after they had dark adapted he turned on a point light source (a light so small that while it was easy to see it did not light up anything else in the room, it was just there by itself, and asked individuals to tell him whether the light was moving and if so to judge how much it seemed to be moving. The light was perfectly still but everyone saw it as moving because their eyes and head were moving, and they had no external reference points to use to cancel those movements out of their perceptions. When asked how much the light was moving individual judgments varied from a few centimeters to many centimeters. If Sherif had people go into the room in groups (not friends just groups of random research volunteers) they all said the light seemed to be moving and when asked to take turns saying how much it was moving their judgements converged so that they eventually agreed on how much the light seemed to be moving. Across groups of volunteers the judgments varied about as much as they had varied across individuals, but all groups agreed on an amount of movement. Sherif also had the participants come back individually months later and when he placed them back in the room by themselves and turned on the small light, they all tended to stick with the amount of movement they had agreed to with their group in the dark months earlier. So, what is the difference between the Asch study and the Sherif study? Well think about this. When they believed (in the Asch study) the group was wrong, people went along with the group 37% of the time but when they were in the dark (in Sherif’s study) they went along 100% of the time. When there is no obvious meaning we (in our groups) make a social norm and then stand by it. Think about this from an evolutionary perspective. In the hunting and gathering tribes and communities we evolved into we were in the dark about a lot of things and forming social norms and group connections made the world manageable and, perhaps, kept us alive. So perhaps this group loyalty (sometimes called tribalism) is built into us and cone some time be a good thing. The trick, of course, is finding ways to make sure we are not being overly Paleolithic in our choices of belief and action.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is the difference between Asch’s conformity and Sherif’s Social Norm formation?
  2. What sorts of things can and should we do to keep a check on how group versus individually focused we are in terms of our decision making (it’s not just about jumping off bridges)?
  3. Thinking about these different definitions of conformity and the different impacts they have on decision making can you see some ways they might be applied to the current (American or global) political climate?

References (Read Further):

Pryor, C., Perfors, A., & Howe, P. D. (2018). Even arbitrary norms influence moral decision-making. Nature Human Behaviour, 1.

Pryor, C., Perfors, A., & Howe, P. D. (2018). Reversing the endowment effect. Judgment and Decision Making, 13(3), 275.

Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological monographs: General and applied, 70(9), 1.

Larsen, K. S., Triplett, J. S., Brant, W. D., & Langenberg, D. (1979). Collaborator status, subject characteristics, and conformity in the Asch paradigm. The Journal of Social Psychology, 108(2), 259-263.

Bond, R., & Smith, P. B. (1996). Culture and conformity: A meta-analysis of studies using Asch’s (1952b, 1956) line judgment task. Psychological bulletin, 119(1), 111.

Sherif, M. (1937). An experimental approach to the study of attitudes. Sociometry, 1(1/2), 90-98.

Gregory, R. L., & Zangwill, O. L. (1963). The origin of the autokinetic effect. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 15(4), 252-261.

Bradley, A. B. (2012). Review of” The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt. Journal of Markets & Morality, 15(2).

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