Why do we follow majority?

Have you ever been in a situation where everyone else was wrong, and you were right, but you remained silent because others had the majority? It would be a lie if you say you haven’t. Don’t worry, you are not alone. This phenomenon is well known to psychologists, and has been extensively studied. Our decisions can be affected by the behavior of others around us. This has been exhibited and explained by Solomon Asch, a Polish-American psychologist, in as early as 1951. So what exactly is this famous Asch conformity experiment?

In the first test of conformity, groups of 8 students were selected. They had a simple task, to identify an identical line between two pictures. However, all but one of the participants were actors, who knew of the experiment beforehand. They were shown a card with a line on it, and were asked to pick a similar line from another picture, which had three lines. These lines were drawn in such a way that, the correct answer was obvious. The participants were asked to read their answer aloud, and the real participant was asked to give the answer last. The actors were trained to give the same false answer in some occasions, and the response of the real participant was studied.
An example question used in Asch Experiment
The results showed some remarkable facts about how we confer to the majority opinion. When there was no pressure from the fellow (actor) members, the chance of giving wrong answer was less than 1%. Although majority of the participants gave the correct answer on other occasions, a considerable portion (36.8%) succumbed to the trend, and gave the wrong answer. Overall, 75% of the participants gave at least 1 incorrect answer, when the actors gave an incorrect answer.

 However, Asch experiment is not without criticism. The percentage of conformity can vary drastically with the audience. For example, an exact replica of the original experiment done in 1980 by Perrin and Spencer used Chemistry, Engineering and Mathematics students found out some contrastingly different results. They found that only in 1 instance out of 369 trials that the participants conformed to the majority. This shows that the bias to go with the flow differs with the audience.

A recent Asch experiment conducted by researchers at University of Peradeniya, using Engineering students as subjects, showed a similar outcome. These participants were debriefed after the experiment, and their ideas showed what was running through their minds. None of the participants who conformed claimed, that they assumed the rest of the group knew better or that they actually believed the wrong answers they provided were correct. They all admitted that they felt a certain pressure or discomfort to provide an answer that was different to the group and that they did not want to stand out. In almost all the instances they were certain that the answer they provided was incorrect. However they decided to proceed. These facts were supported by their body language and facial expressions they displayed during their trials.

Naturally, people feel pressurized to be different or to stand out. In the Sri Lankan context, being a collectivist culture, standing out may not elicit a favorable response. But now that you know what Asch experiment is, this knowledge might lead in change of your response in such a situation. Always following the majority might not be good option. It is okay to be different, if you believe you are right. So next time everybody does something stupid, don’t follow the lead. Because now you know better. Now you know of Asch conformity.

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  1. This article was sent in by Nalanga Hettiarachchi. She is a final year undergraduate, majoring in Psychology at University of Peradeniya.