Most conformity studies are depressing on the surface. But they also show that if a group is embarking on a bad course of action, one dissenter can be enough to turn it around.

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When my daughter Erin was in eighth grade, she came home with a story I’ve never forgotten.

“I was at a lunch table,” she said, “and one girl asked another one where she went to church. And she said, ‘We don’t go to church,’ and the first girl’s eyes got all big, and this other guy leaned forward and said, ‘But you believe in God, right?’”

Oh here we go.

The power of two

So we’re in Georgia, which is red, but Atlanta, which is blue, but the northern suburbs, which are wealthier and whiter than the city and so redder than the city, but bluer than the rest of the state.

You can do the spectral analysis.

Erin continued: “So the girl says, ‘Not really, no.’ And their eyes got even bigger, and they said, ‘Well what do you believe in then??’ And she said, ‘I believe in the universe.’ And they said, ‘So you’re like an atheist?’ And she said ‘Yes, I guess I am.’”

“Then what?” I said.

“Then they turned to meee…” she said, drawing it out for maximum drama. “And they said, ‘What about YOU? What do YOU believe?’” Erin paused for effect. “And I said, ‘Well…I’m an atheist too. An atheist and a humanist.’”

She was 13 at this point, old enough to try on labels, as long as she kept thinking. She knew that. And she had recently decided that her thoughts at the moment added up to atheist and humanist.

“And I looked at the other girl,” she said, “and…like this wave of total relief comes over her face.”

Oh man, what a thing that is.

“Imagine how she would have felt if you weren’t there!!”

“Yeah,” she said, “I know!!”

I’ll tell you who else knows — Solomon Asch.

Solomon Asch was a social psychologist who was active in the 1950s. His most famous study was a ridiculously easy discernment test. The subjects in a group were shown a sample line segment on a card, followed by other segments marked A, B, and C. One of those was clearly the same length as the sample; the others were pretty obviously not. Asch said the difference was clear enough that identifying the wrong one was tantamount to “calling white black.”

“Which segment is the same length as the sample segment?” asked somebody in a white lab coat.

All of the subjects, one at a time, said the correct answer: “A.”

Now it turns out that everyone in the group but one subject were the researcher’s confederates, though this was not known to the one real subject. Very Truman Show.

Round two, same thing: obvious answer, and everybody agreed.

In round three, the worm turns. A is the obvious right answer. But the first of the stooges says C–a blatantly wrong answer—and says it with great confidence. Each of the subjects in turn repeats the incorrect answer.

The real subject goes last. What is that person going to do—trust his or her own eyes, or conform to the obvious error?

When tested by themselves, with no group pressure, subjects showed an error rate around 1% for this experiment. But in the group situation, 70 percent of the subjects—70 percent—defied the unambiguous evidence of their own senses at least once. They made an error in their rush to conform.

The lesson of the Solomon Asch study is that most people at least some of the time will defy the clear evidence of their own senses or their reason to follow the herd.

There were other observations:

  • About 25% of subjects were consistently independent of group pressure
  • Another 25% always succumbed to group pressure

I’d be interested to see data on the parenting styles in which those two groups were raised. I’d bet good money that the high conformers were raised in families that tended toward the authoritarian model, where kids are seen and not heard, and the independent ones were raised in relatively authoritative families, which are more collaborative and the reasons for rules are discussed. More on parenting styles in another episode.

Some more data:

  • If the real subject saw the confederates as being from an “out-group”—such as seven Palestinians with an Israeli subject, in one variation – conformity pressure diminishes or disappears altogether. And a close affinity with the other group members (race, age, religion, whatever) increases the tendency to conform—in this case, to conform to an error. And the larger the group, the greater the tendency to conform.

The power of one

There’ve been a lot of variations on the Asch study, and one in particular came to mind for me after Erin told me her story. The basic procedure was the same, with one difference: In each group, a single confederate served as a lone dissenter, identifying the correct line segment against as many as twelve others giving the wrong answer.

In these cases, the presence of that one dissenter reduced the error rates of subjects by 75%. This is a really important realization: if a group is embarking on a bad course of action, one dissenter may turn it around by energizing ambivalent group members to join the dissent instead of following the crowd into error. Think of Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men.

The military even has a term for what happens in wartime when like-minded people reinforce one another’s views, increasing the risk of miscalculation: it’s called “incestuous amplification.”

If a group is embarking on a bad course of action, one dissenter may turn it around by energizing ambivalent group members to join the dissent instead of following the crowd into error.

On April 17, 1961, the US government sent 1,500 Cuban exiles to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The idea was to give the US plausible deniability—barely plausible, but still. It was supposed to look like the exiles did it on their own.

Well, it did end up looking like that. The invasion was a mess of lousy planning and execution. Most of the 1,500 were killed or captured by a force of 20,000 Cuban soldiers, and the US government was forced to essentially pay a ransom of 53 million dollars for the release of the prisoners. And that’s in Mad Men dollars—it would be $510 million today. Cuba’s ties with the Soviet Union were strengthened, and the stage was set for the Cuban Missile Crisis six months later.

In short, it was a complete disaster. And in retrospect, that should have been obvious to those who planned it. But among President Kennedy’s senior advisers, the vote to go ahead had been unanimous. Why? It came out later that several of them had serious doubts beforehand but were unwilling to express those doubts since they thought everybody else was on board. It was the height of the Cold War, and nobody wanted to look “soft.” The climate of the discussions made real dissent too difficult to articulate, so a really bad idea went unchallenged.

The presidential historian Arthur Schlesinger was there for most of the discussions, and he later said that he was convinced even one dissenter could have caused Kennedy to call off the invasion. One. He said he wished most of all that he had found the strength to be that dissenter.

At least Kennedy learned his lesson. During the Missile Crisis later that year, he made a point of fostering dissent and encouraging the collision of ideas among his advisers. The resulting policy led to the peaceful conclusion of what may have been the most dangerous crisis in human history (so far).

Many think that times of crisis and war are the worst possible times for argument and dissent. Hitler certainly thought so. He often said the mess of conflicting opinion in democracies would cause the Western powers to crumble before the single-minded focus of his military machine. He got the difference right but misdirected the praise. Military historians are pretty much agreed that the stifling of dissent in the Third Reich’s military decision-making was its fatal flaw. It was entirely top-down. Only if Hitler’s plans were flawless could that system be stronger than one in which ideas contend for supremacy.

So Montgomery and Patton’s pissing contests, MacArthur and Truman’s showdowns, and the constant whirl of debate among the Allies and even among the branches of the American service was a better approach to running a war than the single-minded dictates of dictators, from Napoleon to Hitler to Saddam Hussein. Crush dissent and you will most often end up shooting yourself in the foot. United We Stand is bad policy, even in wartime.

Now we come to the most frightening implications of Solomon Asch and all his children – now follow the bouncing ball here:

As confidence increases in a group, so does conformity, and vice versa.

If a question is ambiguous or difficult, the group is likely to seek and conform to a confident voice within the group.

But the more ambiguous or difficult a question is, the more likely that confidence is unwarranted. So those confident voices are very often confident because they haven’t recognized the complexity and ambiguity in the question. Let me rephrase once more with added implications:

If a question is ambiguous, complex or difficult, those most ignorant of the complexities will express the greatest confidence in their conclusions, and others will be drawn to conform to them. To put it bluntly, the less justification groups have for confidence, the more confident they tend to be—and the more willing to take action on that confidence if an ignorant voice provides a confident rallying point. Rather than remain in honest uncertainty, most of us will gladly leap into dishonest ignorance.

So what does all this have to do with that simple exchange in the middle school cafeteria?

Had the other girl in my daughter’s story not mustered the courage to self-identify first as a person with a different perspective—in this case, an atheist—Erin would have been statistically less likely to share her own non-majority view. Once the girl spoke up, Erin’s ability to join the dissent went up about 75 percent. And once Erin shared the same view, the other girl enjoyed a wave of relief at not being alone.

The other two kids learned that not everyone believes the same thing, even in a relatively conservative area, and that the world still spins despite the presence of difference. They’re also likely to be less afraid and less astonished the next time they learn that somebody doesn’t believe as they do, which can translate into greater tolerance of all kinds of difference.

In more situations than we think, everybody wins when we are different out loud.

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...