The Curious Phenomenon of Pressure-Induced Conformity.
The pressure to conform to society’s norms is a curiously underrated phenomenon with a seemingly limitless radius of influence. One would think that our present culture would lend itself to nonconformity and embrace the individual differences that make American culture unique. However, experiences and observations have consistently proven this idea false. Why do the constituents of our society feel such a strong desire to follow rather than lead? Does social pressure exert as powerful an effect on our behaviors and attitudes as one is led to believe? If this desire to imitate is as strong as claimed, what are the underlying human characteristics responsible for such sheepish behavior?
In the early 1950s, Solomon Asch conducted a series of landmark experiments to provide informed answers to these questions. His conclusions supported the existence of the powerful effects that social pressure exerts on members of society. He attempted to determine what made individuals so readily yield to the majority, despite clear and convincing evidence that the majority was inaccurate. He sought to quantify the likelihood that an individual faced with a dissenting majority would simply yield to this majority in an attempt to increase conformity with the group. He endeavored to ascertain the relative contributions of the variables that triggered conformity, e.g., the size of the opposing majority, the unanimity of the opposing majority, and the suggestibility of the conformist. Today, one can hardly find Asch’s results surprising (Asch 656-58).
Asch’s experiments began with the assembly of seven to nine male college students asked to compare the lengths of lines. Each participant received two white cards. The first card had a single black line. The second card had three black lines of differing lengths. Only one of the lines on the second card was identical in length to that on the first card; the other two lines were substantially longer or shorter. The participants were to choose the line on the second card that was identical in length to the first card’s line. In addition, the participants announced their selections publicly. The subject of the experiment was always the last to make his decision publicly, meaning that he was privy to the choices of the other members of the group prior to publicly announcing his selection. Unbeknownst to the subject, all other group members received instructions to give incorrect responses in unanimity in twelve of the eighteen trials. All cited results refer only to these twelve “critical” trials. One can imagine the dilemma faced by the subject; publicly oppose the incorrect, yet unanimous majority, or yield to the social pressure to conform, and resist the clear evidence of his senses (Asch 655-6).
One hundred twenty-three identical experiments were carried to completion, and the results were rather disappointing. In the absence of pressure, the subject made an error, (chose the wrong line), less than one percent of the time. However, exposure to the vice-like pressure of the group, the subject yielded to the majority thirty-seven percent of the time. Further analysis of the results indicated that the responses of the subjects were very consistent. If a subject was independent at the start, said subject remained that way throughout the entire experiment. Likewise, if the subject yielded to the majority early in the investigation, he never was able to respond independently, at any point in the study. Expressed statistically, one-quarter of the subjects never agreed with the inaccurate majority. They failed to yield to the majority throughout the entire experiment from start to finish (Asch 656-7).
Ashe also conducted variations of this experiment. He tested the influence of the size of the majority on the subject’s responses, the effect of unanimity on said responses, and the point at which, by increasing the discrepancies between the standard line and the other lines, the error of the majority was so ridiculously erroneous that no subject could possibly make an error (Asch, 657-9).
The results proved rather shocking. First, the effect of the size of the majority had apparent impacts on the subjects’ responses. As the number of dissenters increased from one to three, subject error increased linearly. Second, the pressure of unanimity decreased considerably by providing the subject with a single supporting partner. Lastly, a point at which the discrepancy in the lengths of the lines was so significant that no subject was able to acquiesce to the majority proved to be unreachable (Asch 658-9).
Asch drew one other essential conclusion from these results. Unfortunately, the tendency of individuals to conform to society was far stronger than he had imagined (Asch 659).
One powerful predictor of subject acquiescence to the majority is termed “suggestibility.” Suggestibility is the likelihood that an individual will accept and later change his behavior solely due to the suggestions of others (The Doctrine of Suggestion 252). Social pressure is the influence that a group exerts on an individual that increases the probability of said individual to change his/her overt behaviors to improve conformity with the group (273). In Asch’s experiments, social pressure resulted in the subject going against his/her actual beliefs and yielding to the majority. The probability with which the subject acquiesced to this social pressure was a valid barometer regarding the subject’s “Suggestibility.” A subject classified as highly suggestible rapidly yielded to the majority’s application of social pressure. However, a less suggestible subject had an increased likelihood of responding independently, refusing to be influenced by the applied social pressure.
In any society composed of myriad beliefs and ideals, reaching a consensus is imperative for the forward progress of the nation. The consensus is widespread agreement among all members of a group. However, if consensus is to be productive, it requires each group member to contribute freely based on experience. If the individuals contributing to this consensus are not doing so independently, because of the pressures to conform, then the pseudo-consensus that is reached has little redeeming value, and cannot even be termed a “consensus.” (Asch 659).
Asch acknowledges the large degree to which people’s opinions or attitudes are shaped by social pressure. To disagree with Asch’s conclusion would be asinine. It is merely human nature to desire a sense of belonging. To most, being viewed as a social misfit or outcast is a punishment that has no equal. Perhaps the most significant examples illustrating the high value placed on conformity are the effects of peer pressure on illicit drug usage. Even the most naïve 15-year-old is aware that cigarettes and recreational drugs are addictive, deadly, and, for the most part, illegal. Yet the pressure to be a member of the “in-crowd,” easily triumphs over the knowledge that one should not be engaging in such dangerous behaviors. The desire to conform is so strong that it renders people willing to participate in the acceleration of their own eternal demise.
Based on the above paragraph, how can one be surprised by the results of this experiment? As mentioned above, if peer pressure is strong enough to coerce individuals to ingest poisonous substances, despite knowing that such ingestion may ultimately result in premature death, what could speak greater volumes regarding the pressure placed on individuals to conform?
Asch’s conclusions confirm my long-standing belief that subjects who exhibit independence initially would maintain that independence throughout all trials and in any context of the experiment. Likewise, those who yielded to the majority initially would continue to do so. Bolstered by Asch’s results, I remain confident that the ability to resist social pressure requires the possession of certain admirable traits, e.g. intelligence, self-confidence. One either has these characteristics or lacks them. This lends support to observations and beliefs that the ability to maintain independence against a unanimous majority is not a random event. It requires the possession of those aforementioned rare, desirable traits. Asch’s research supports this all-or-none tendency when he states, “one quarter of the subjects started independent and never wavered or acquiesced to the majority.” He also says that a particular group of individuals yielded to the majority from start to finish. (Asch 656).
As mentioned previously, most people have a desire to belong and thus conform. When one is alone on an island, it is challenging to stand tall and maintain one’s position. One can imagine four people united by the same opinion deriding a lone, solitary stranger who places his stock in a different view. Regardless of how correct that loner feels he/she is, it is very likely that he/she will yield to the opinion of the other four. However, if that same loner finds just one single supporter, which breaks the unanimity of the dissenting majority, studies show that he/she will likely begin arguing his/her point with much greater vigor and enthusiasm. My belief that a single assisting individual neutralizes the tremendous pressure exerted by a unanimous majority is proven right by Asch’s experiments (Asch 657).
The two poems that the class was assigned to read, “The Death of The Ball Turret Gunner,” by Randall Jarrell, and, “The Unknown Citizen,” by W.H. Auden, were strongly connected to the topic of conformity, and the discouragement of individuality. As a result, they tie in rather nicely to this essay. Despite utilizing very different techniques, both authors present almost identical viewpoints regarding the conformity of society in the face of a controlling majority. The poems discuss the insignificance of a single life because those in power view conformity, or the lack of individuality, as an extremely desirable trait. If every person were identical to one another, with no variation, then what would make one person’s life any different from another’s?
Additionally, both authors believe that the myth of the perfectly conforming individual is simply a government-created construct to discourage dissent and self-reflection among the masses. In Jarrell’s poem, the man who does not think individually but only yields to the state-mandated orders of serving his country represents the same lauded citizen who conforms to the state’s rule during both peacetime and war in Auden’s poem. Both argue that the state’s emphasis on this conformity is a self-serving one that furthers their ability to maintain power (Auden; Jarrell).
In Jarrell’s poem, the pilot sitting in the cockpit of a WWII bomber has some sense of control. He can change the direction of flight and can order the crew to bail out. The gunner, however, is stuck in the turret. He has zero control. Fighting and dying are the only activities in which the gunner will ever participate. Jarrell emphasizes the power of the state to send countries into war and their citizens to certain death. The last line of the poem sums this up rather gruesomely, “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.” This line emphasizes the insignificance of human life. The soldier fights for his country, ultimately loses his life in battle and then is impersonally hosed out of the turret, only to be replaced by another soldier who will suffer the identical fate in the not-too-distant future (Shmoop Editorial Team).
“The Unknown Citizen” by W.H. Auden also touches on the seemingly insignificant existence of a citizen in a government-controlled state. In the title, the phrase “The Unknown” means ordinary and obscure. Hence, the entire title of the poem, “The Unknown Citizen,” suggests those average, hidden soldiers/citizens of the state who perished defending their motherland and desired name and fame, yet remained unknown and nondescript (The Unknown Citizen). Not much different from Jarrell’s gunner, who gained his greatest glory only upon his death and being washed out of the turret with a hose. Both Jarrell and Auden express the view that the only way an individual survives in a regimented society is to conform. These are also the same conclusions drawn by Asch in his social experiments. It is extraordinarily interesting how certain principles prove themselves faithful in any time or context (Jarrell).
Asch, S. E. “Opinions and Social Pressure.” Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. 12th ed. Behrens, Laurence and Leonard J. Rosen. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2013. 655-59. Print.
—. “The Doctrine of Suggestion, Prestige and Imitation in Social Psychology.” Psychological Review 55.5 (1948): 250-76. PsycINFO. Web. 27 July 2014.
Auden, W.H. “The Unknown Citizen.” Another Time. Random House., 1940. Web. 31 Jul. 2014.
Jarrell, Randall. “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” The Complete Poems. Farrar, 1969. Web. 31 Jul. 2014.
Shmoop Editorial Team. “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 29 Jul. 2014.
—. “The Unknown Citizen.” Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 30 Jul. 2014.