In the 1950s, the psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments studying if and how individuals yield to or defy the beliefs and opinions of a majority group.
“The classic Asch experiment sat several young men around a table and showed them a pair of cards, one with a single line, and one with three lines of obviously different lengths, labelled A, B and C. The experiment asked subjects to say which of the three lines was the same length as the single line on the other card. This was a trivially easy task, but there was a twist: all but one of the people sitting around the table were actors recruited by Asch. As they went around the table, each one called out the same answer – a wrong answer. By the time Asch turned to the real experimental subject, the poor man would be baffled. Frequently, he would fall in with the group, and later interviews revealed that this was often because he genuinely believed his eyes were deceiving him. As few as three actors were enough to create this effect.”
“Overall, subjects gave a wrong answer 32 per cent of the time. Seventy-four per cent gave the wrong answer at least once, and a sizeable minority caved in to peer pressure three-quarters of the time. That’s amazing when you consider how simple the exercise was. In a control group, without accomplices, virtually everyone gave the right answer all the time.”
A further experiment, however, sheds light on how this peer pressure can be released. Harford continues:
“Less famous but just as important is Asch’s follow-up experiment, in which one of the actors gave a different answer from the rest. Immediately, the pressure to conform was released. Experimental subjects who gave the wrong answer when outnumbered ten to one happily dissented and gave the right answer when outnumbered nine to two. Remarkably, it didn’t even matter if the fellow dissenter gave the right answer himself. As long as the answer was different from the group, that was sufficient to free Asch’s poor subjects from their socially imposed cognitive straight jackets.”
The experiment shows that people often feel a pressure to conform to the wider group, even when the majority is clearly misguided.
It is not difficult to see how an environment devoid of opposition views can create an echo chamber of escalating and self-reinforcing beliefs.
Just one opinion that opposes the majority view is enough to release the peer pressure. One dissenting opinion seems to give others the permission to table their true beliefs.
The experiment teaches us to encourage dissenting views. Even if they are misguided. Dissenting views create an environment in which others are more comfortable in being forthcoming with their own ideas.