Group Conformity: Solomon Asch and the Safety of Numbers

By now there's little doubt that technology and collaboration are going to continue expanding the realm of possibilities for what the modern workforce can achieve. Add to this the many other benefits of collaboration, and you might imagine that there are no downsides to people working together. Like everything else in life though, there's a right way to do it and a wrong way. Unless you provide training and put processes in place to overcome cognitive biases, then collaboration can potentially have disastrous consequences.

Solomon Asch's conformity experiments

One of the best experiments demonstrating what can go wrong in a group setting, is social psychologist Solomon Asch's work on conformity thinking. Asch demonstrated that in a group setting, the minority will often go with the majority as a way of seeking safety in numbers.

In his experiments carried out in the 1950s, university students in groups of eight to ten were shown two cards. The first card contained a single line. The students were told that the study was on visual perception and were then asked to identify which of the three lines on the second card, labeled A, B, and C, was the same length as the single line on the first card.

The key element in this study was that only one of the subjects in each group was actually being tested. The others were all told to give planned responses to the questions that Asch posed.

In these experiments, some were told to give an incorrect answer, saying for instance that a line was the same length as the single line on the test card. Sometimes all of the decoy subjects would give the same wrong answer. Other times some would give false answers while the rest answered correctly. What was startling was that over the course of several experiments, 37 out of 50 (74%) of the subjects went along with the mistaken majority group at least once.[acp footnote]Ronald Burt, The Shadow of Other People: Socialization and Social Comparison in Marketing, in The Connected Customer: The Changing Nature of Consumer and Business Markets, edited by Stefan H.K. Wuyts, Marnik G. Dekimpe, Els Gijsbrechts, F.G.M.(Rik) Pieters (s.l.: Routledge Academic, 2010), p. 238.[/acp]

"The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black. This is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct."

~ Solomon Asch[acp footnote]S. Asch, Effects of Group Pressure upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgments, in H. Guetzkow, Groups, Leadership and Men: Research in Human Relations. (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Carnegie Press, 1951).[/acp]

In these experiments, Asch also differentiated between two types of psychological conformity:

Informational conformity

Information conformity occurs when we doubt our own judgements, thinking that "if everyone else here is agreeing on X, then Y can't possibly be the answer". Most of us will have experienced this at some point in our lives, and the greater the level of overall agreement in the group, the less likely we are to disagree. In this way we override our own independent judgements. This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary standpoint, as the threat of deviating from the group would have likely presented life threatening consequences for our ancestors.[acp footnote]Sushil Bikhchandani, David Hirshleifer and Ivo Welch. Learning from the Behavior of Others: Conformity, Fads, and Informational Cascades, Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 12 (1998), 151-170.[/acp]

Normative conformity

Normative conformity happens when we don't want to be seen as the deviant person who disagrees with the group. If you've ever had to stand up to defend your opinions in a group setting, you'll understand what this entails. Depending on the group, it can often be uncomfortable, even leaving you open to verbal attack. After all, teamwork is all about getting everyone on the same page, right? Well, no, but in group dynamics the outsider is very rarely embraced, which to an extent is understandable. Disagreements in such situations result in negative emotions.[acp footnote]Guandong Song, Ma Qinhai, Wu Fangfei and Li Lin, "The Psychological Explanation of Conformity." Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, vol. 40, no. 8 (2012): 1365[/acp] Add to that a whole host of other cognitive biases intertwined with "politics", and you end up with a group that is very likely to make bad decisions based on false information. In addition, if we look at this from an evolutionary cost-benefit approach, the risk of being admonished from the security of a group would have rarely made it a good idea to disagree with the majority.[acp footnote]Martin F. Kaplan and Charles E. Miller, Group decision making and normative versus informational influence: Effects of type of issue and assigned decision rule, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 53, no. 2 (1987), 306-313.[/acp]

Overcoming conformity

So how do we go about remedying these psychological instincts that are not only detrimental, but potentially dangerous to the modern organisation? The approaches that we should take involve systematically welcoming disagreements, diversity of thought and personnel, while always considering alternative scenarios and encouraging independent thinking. Yes, it is possible to be a group member without sacrificing independent thought. Above all, we should recognise that while thinking alike might help to create a more friendly work environment, this won't necessarily translate into better and more successful decisions. Only when we recognise these facts and implement corrective measures can we hope to create a group environment that is conducive to intelligent decision-making.

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