Peer pressure is a powerful thing, even for adults. In his Big Think Edge video, “Generate Better Conversations,” economist Tim Harford tells the story of an instructive study done in the 1950s by psychologist Solomon Asch. It demonstrated why speaking up to disagree in a group setting can result in better decision-making, even when you’re wrong. It reminds us why diversity of opinions is so important.
In his experiment, Asch presented subjects with two cards. On one was a sentence. On the other were three different sentences, A, B, and C, one of which — B — was the same length as the one on the first card. The other two were obviously shorter or longer.
Asch lined up a half-dozen people, all of whom were actors secretly assisting him, except for the final person, the actual subject. He asked each person in turn to identify the sentence — A, B, or C — that matched the sentence on the first card in length.
It’s hard to buck group think
The first thing he did was to have all of his associates say that A was the matching sentence. “Now there’s this person at the end of the line who’s now feeling really weird,” recalls Harford, “because he can see that the answer’s B. And yet everyone in the room is saying ‘A.’ And he’s sweating, he’s checking his watch, he’s giggling. These people started showing signs of real pressure.” In a high percentage of cases, the subject ended up going along with the group, in spite of knowing better.
There are two conclusions to be drawn here. First, group pressure can overwhelm truth, forcing participants into positions that they absolutely know are wrong. Second is that group unanimity can prevent an individual participant from feeling courageous enough up to speak up and correct a group mistake.
Breaking unanimity’s power
When Asch had even a single associate voice an opinion that the answer was B, or even C — thus breaking with the majority — the spell was broken, and the subjects became likely to answer honestly, and correctly.
“So,” says Harford, “even if you do nothing for the rest of your career but go to meetings and say the wrong thing — as long as it’s a different wrong thing from what other people are saying — you are helping to generate a better conversation.” What you’ll be doing is creating a safe space for a diversity of opinion, freeing everyone there to feel comfortable speaking up. Among those may be someone with an idea that’s truly brilliant.
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