Sunday, June 28, 2009

On social acceptance, peer pressure and the human mind

On social acceptance, peer pressure and the disquieting effects on the human mind:

In his book, "How real is real?", Paul Watzlawick talks briefly about experimental disinformation, which sheds light on the need for social acceptance. In particular, the reference to the Asch experiment is very insightful. The experiment, so named after a University of Pennsylvania professor goes like this (see Wikipedia link for more information here):

Groups of students were shown two cards with one card having a single straight line, and the second card with three lines of varying lengths. At each iteration of the experiment, all the students were asked to pick which line on the second card was of the same length as the line on the first card.

The experiment usually begins uneventfully, with all the students typically picking the same line on the second card. In the second or third iteration with a new set of cards, too, this is repeated. In subsequent iterations of the expriment, all except one of the students are tipped ahead of the experiment to provide incorrect answers. This lone student disagrees with the rest of the group for the first time, and is surprised or amused. As the experiment proceeds with the following iterations, the dissenting student is increasingly more hesitant, perplexed and worried in the face of unanimous responses from the rest of the group. What lies behind this is an apparent conflict in the mind of the dissenter, where in he faces the choice of directly contradicting the matter-of-fact opinion of the rest of the group and sticking by his senses, or alternately, become strangely confused and begin to agree with the errant majority while uncomfortably doubtful in the evidence of his senses.

The results of this experiment were staggering: In a control group, with no pressure to conform to an erroneous view, only 1 subject out of 35 ever gave an incorrect answer. However, when surrounded by individuals all voicing an incorrect answer, participants provided incorrect responses on a high proportion of the questions (36.8%). 75% of the participants gave an incorrect answer to at least one question. Further, by adding modifications to this experiment, Asch was able to show that the size of the errant opposition played a big role in the subject maintaining the independence of his judgment and senses. With only one person providing incorrect responses, the dissenter had no trouble sticking to his views. With two in the opposition, the submission rate jumped to 13%, while with three opposing and unanimous members in the group, the rate increased to 32%, and so on, further up to 36% where it generally stabilized.

As Watzlawick says, "this willingness to surrender one's independence, to barter the evidence of one's senses for the comfortable but reality-distorting satisfaction of feeling in harmony with a group, is, of course, the stuff on which demagogues and dictators thrive." In addition, this submission of independent judgment is the key to understanding a variety of social phenomena, including what we refer to as peer pressure, and the associated stigmas of not confirming to a society's accepted behaviors concerning social trends, sexual preferences, lifestyles, religious beliefs and practices and even political beliefs and affiliations.

People have such a need - whether natural or forced by the society - to identify with a group, and "belong" to it, that in many cases, individuals are ready to oppose everything that doesnt belong to that group, even if the opposing camp has some beliefs that may be similar to that individual's personal preferences. Wars, genocides, hate-crimes and modern party-based democractic systems have been consequences, in some way, shape or form, of this distortion-of-reality induced madness.

The irony is that, if the individual disagrees with the majority, he is considered "mad" in the eyes of the majority; yet, if he agrees with them, he adds to the "madness" of the group itself, even if that group may not consider themselves so.