Monday, February 23, 2015

To Conform or Not to Conform?

Conformity is all around us. While it sounds negative to label someone a "conformist", saying that the person is a "team player" is appealing. Isn't this the same thing framed in a more palatable way? We celebrate historical figures for non-conformity, especially those political figures that proved to be on the right side of things in retrospect, but these non-conformists often faced opposition and strife. This is true of Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., ... to name a few.

Conformity is a reality of the world in which we live. Social scientists describe stages of development of the self that surround the notion of how others perceive us (e.g., Looking Glass Self).

We, as human beings, are highly influenced by those around us. A classic psychology experiment by Solomon Asch (1956) with American college students over 50 years ago demonstrated how much we are influenced to conform. Its surprising! He conducted a social experiment in which he asked a very simple question to a group of students. One of the students was set up. All the other students were told to pick the same wrong answer. Asch found that when presented with a very easy problem, one that had an answer that a child could figure out, if everyone gives the same false answer, 75% of students gave the same incorrect answer that the class chose 75% of the time. The questions were asked more than once and when all answers were added up an average of 35% of all responses (the guy who didn't know) conformed to the wrong answer.

So this means there are situations when in groups that we can feel pressure to knowingly choose the wrong answer. This experiment and others like it have been repeated many times. In fact this study was repeated with participants that were monitored with fMRI technology. What was found?

Basically, it is a painful experience to go against the group's position (Burns and colleagues, 2005). The activity in the area of the brain that shows pain and discomfort (e.g., amygdala) was very busy for the students that went against the the group's wrong answer. The brain image of the guy that went with the group opinion wasn't nearly as disturbed.

What could we do?

I suggest  know what you think and believe in advance or the group can easily influence you.

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