Asch test

Asch test

If you take a look at the picture above you’ll see one line in the first box, and three lines in the second box.  Your task is very simple – which one of the three lines is the same length as the first?  The answer is “C” of course, but you might be surprised how easily you’ll agree it’s “A” or “B” instead, because of “groupthink”.

The lines were part of a famous experiment carried out by Solomon Asch in the early 1950s.  He invited participants to take part in a group exercise where they were shown a card with a line on, followed by another card with three lines on.  The group were asked one by one to say aloud which line it was that matched.  What the participants in the experiment were unaware of though was that the seven other members of their group had all been instructed to give the same wrong answer to a particular set of the questions.

The results showed that the participants started to adjust their answers to fit with what the other members of the group were saying.  A small number of them did this because they started to see the lines differently, and their perception was subconsciously distorted to support their answer.  A larger number continued to believe that they knew the right answer but gave the wrong one in order not to appear different.  The largest number however came to believe that they must be wrong, and the group be right, even though their perception of the lines remained undistorted.

The pressure of social conformity leads to what further research in the 1970s called “groupthink”.  Groupthink most often occurs in teams and organisations not so much where being a “team player” is encouraged, but where dissent or disagreement are seen as disloyal and threatening.  Groups that are isolated, under stress, or have experienced recent failure are also likely to develop groupthink.

It’s a variation of groupthink that also leads to the “bystander effect”.  This is an observed social phenomenon in which the more bystanders or witnesses there are to an accident the less likely it is that someone will step forward to help.  The thing that stops people going to the assistance of someone is the subconscious pressure that comes from noticing that no-one else has, and the wish to conform with the group as a whole.

Similar experiments to Asch’s have even been carried out with smoke from a fire coming into a room from under a door.  In a group where all but one have been instructed not to react to the smoke the “genuine” participants have been shown to not raise the alarm despite their increasing agitation.

One thing that groupthink does rely on is good communication between individuals, in order to share their thoughts and their values.  Where this communication doesn’t exist groups can fall prey to what is called the Abeline paradox.  This is still based on social conformity but crucially the majority members of the group mistakenly believe that their thoughts or values aren’t in line with everybody else’s.  As a result the group as a whole makes decisions which as a majority they disagree with, or that even might be against its own interests.

The easiest remedy for groupthink though is for at least one person in every group to act as a devil’s advocate.  Groups where someone takes that role are shown to make much better decisions.

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