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Conforming to the Norm

Have you ever heard someone say they are just like sheep? Well science does confirm that most humans are followers…

What we know from such clever studies as the Asch Conformity Experiment way back in 1951 that in general people are more comfortable to ‘conform’ to the norm then stand out or challenge the standard of norm put forward by their peers. What Professor Asch did in general was set up a series of research participants by asking very basic questions such as which line out of three is bigger or smaller; he then had five participants deliberately answer incorrectly while the one participant in the room (who was not let in on the secret – the true research subject) would answer either as they themselves saw the line or not… The interesting outcome was in general the true research participant would very quickly give into the others in the room to conform to their peers’ answers, even though the others did not use any force or intimidation to sway the research participants answer. Here is a great clip demonstrating this:

This initial research found, and ongoing research continues to get similar numbers:

  • 50% of people gave the same wrong answer as the others on more than half of the trials.

  • Only 25% of participants refused to be swayed by the majority’s blatantly false judgement on all of the 12 trials.

  • 5% always conformed with the majority incorrect opinion (we all know people like that, right?!)

  • Over all the trials the average conformity rate was 33%.

Why do we do this?

When interviewing research participants, we tend to get similar explanations as to why people choose to conform to their peers’ answers:

Commonly people reported a sense of anxiety to be viewed as different or dumb because their answer differed from the rest of the group in the room.

Most participants questioned themselves and thought that although they did see the lines differently to what others said, perhaps what they saw was incorrect.

A few research participants stated that they did actually see the incorrect answer as the correct answer – this raises questions about mind over matter and can we really see what we want to see.

What’s the benefit?

Such findings have mixed blessings in that it is helpful on many levels to know that in general individuals happily become a part of a group and will do what others are doing; but in that benefit lays danger as we can loose diversity and individual thought…

So you think you are not a conformist?

Here is a cute little survey to see just where you might stand on this:

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