Conformity is a natural phenomenon

Document, don’t create

Afterthoughts: Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynmann By Richard Feynmann

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The Asch conformity experiments of the 1950’s provided irrefutable evidence of a tendency to conform to the behaviours’ of our peers, even when it may be incorrect. It is a phenomenon that we see play out in our day-to-day lives but something that is generally frowned upon. Why do we do this? What did Asch manage to show? And how does this relate to other popular theories of behaviour?

The scope of their investigation was fairly narrow, looking at the decisions of one subject in a small group environment and the examples used were fairly trivial like the length of a line.In a classroom environment, there was one person who was the subject of the trail. The other people in the class were in on it, dubbed confederates. They would be asked simple questions, and the class would just answer with that they thought was the right answer. In the first few questions, the confederates would choose the actual correct answer, but then would opt for the incorrect answer without the subject having any knowledge of this duplicity. What started to happen was that the a lot of the subjects began changing their answers to align with what the rest of the class said. Read the full results from the experiment here.

This idea of peer pressure has been explored in popular culture. Famously through Kendrick Lamar’s The Art of Peer Pressure, on good kid, m.A.A.d city. Kendrick laments that he succumbed to peer pressure. In doing so, putting himself in a position to potentially be complicit in a violent crime. It of course manifests in more trivially in our day to day lives e.g. feeling the need to go for coffee or drinks with people at work.

One odd example comes to mind, the year was ~2009 and Justin Bieber came to the fore of musical world with his song Baby. The reaction was unexpectedly polarising between guys and girls. The former absolutely hated Bieber (to this day, I don’t know where the viciousness came from), while the the latter loved him. It just seemed so arbitrary. I didn’t enjoy his music, but not to the extent where I would vilify him at every opportunity. The peer pressure was to have this same attitude if you were guy, contradicting this invited mockery and disdain.

It would be interesting to explore how their conclusions about peer pressure relates to mimetic theory and evolutionary psychology. Criticism was leveled around the researchers’ speculations of why the subjects acted the way they did. Their notes suggest that it was either because they just wanted to fit in or that they believed what the others thought and that they must be wrong.

Evolutionary psychology provides a lens into the subjects’ possible motivations. The explanation of ‘fitting in’ makes sense from a Darwinian perspective. In the ancestral environment, standing out would have not necessarily been associated with our instinct for self-preservation. If our ancestors’ stood out ideologically from members of their tribe, it would often led to disagreement and conflict. Something that, without the safeguards of civilisation, would lead to injury or death.

The new Darwinian paradigm can also explain why some people thought they must be wrong about the answer given everyone else gave the same but different answer. Before the internet and the printing press, knowledge was contained to whatever a collectives’ living memory was. The instinct would have been to ask elders or whomever. But if they didn’t know what the answer was, then were was little reason to question it. There was no other way of finding out the answer, so the question became irrelevant. What is the point of trying to find out something we don’t know? Our sensibility for curiousity is a fairly recent cultural attitude, post-Renaissance, according to Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens. Going with the group is a heuristic that we have developed, and serves as a plausible explanation in this context.

Asch’s findings lines up with mimetic theory which states that most of our behaviours come from our environment. The experiment just provided stronger evidence for this, and doesn’t necessarily contradict or put into question anything about mimetic theory.

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