‘Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.’
You are a male college student in the Swarthmore College, U.S.A..You and seven other students have agreed to participate in a task examining perception. All eight of you are shown a card with a vertical line on it, and another card with three vertical lines on it marked A, B and C.
(Diagram and some of the information from the Simply Psychology site.)
One at a time, each of you has to say out loud which of A, B or C is the same length as the line on the other card. You, the reader, sit at the end of the table so you are always the last student to respond.
In the first trial all eight of you agree that line C is the answer.
In the second trial another pair of cards is presented and all eight of you agree that line B is the answer.
In the third trial two more cards are presented and the other seven students seem to get the answer wrong.
(i) give what you believe to be the correct answer, or
(ii) do you assume the other students can see something you can’t, and give the same answer they’re giving?
Most of you reading this will plunk for (i). But would you have been so sure if you had been the subject of the real experiment?
In Solomon Asch’s 1951 experiment there were 18 pairs of cards; 18 trials. The other students unanimously gave the wrong answer 12 times.
As you have probably guessed, the other seven participants were confederates purposely giving wrong answers. The experiment was not about perception, it was about conformity. Asch wanted to see if people ignored their better judgement to avoid contradicting seven other people. Would they give wrong answers when people around them were also giving what seemed to be wrong answers?
In Asch’s experiment only 25% of the students tested always resisted the pressure to conform, and gave the correct answer in each case.
With all the experiments added together (with variations) one third of the students felt compelled to give the wrong answer!
Ashe interviewed them to learn their reasons for conforming, and if you google the Solomon Asch Experiment you can find the reasons. What is important for this book is: how often in life have you conformed at the expense of what was right? How often have you smiled at a racist joke to humour the joke teller? How often have you watched someone insulted, or bullied, and said nothing? Have you pretended to understand a word you didn’t know, so as not to look foolish?
I know I have. I still do, sometimes. I do it before I remember not to. Then I feel disappointed in myself, for having let myself down.
Conforming can demean us. If conforming is a habit we have a problem. To address that problem we need to become disobedient not just to authority, but to our friends and colleagues as well. The best way to do that is to learn how to resist another person’s pressure.
What can we do to resist pressure?
Your colleagues are about to do something wrong and have invited you to join them:
1. If you feel pressure, recognise it. Ask yourself: ‘Are they trying to manipulate me?’ If the answer is yes, say to yourself, ‘I’m being pressured here.’ (Yep, label it.)
It’s all about awareness. Once you realise you are being pressured you can begin to make sharper decisions. You can give yourself permission to be disobedient.
‘Just being aware that you have that vulnerability is the single best protection against it happening.’
Dr. Philip Zimbardo.
2. Switch on your Bullshit Detector. ‘Is this wrong? Is it stupid? Does the other person’s moral compass measure up? Is my moral compass in better working order?’
(If you think it’s wrong, others will too. Say it’s wrong and enlist them.)
3. Remind yourself of the Milgram experiment and of how easily we can be coerced.
4. Understand yourself. Ask yourself, ‘Am I about to comply because I want to be liked? Do I want to fit in? Do I want to avoid feeling small?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, remember:
▪ You will be seen as weak if you do give in. (They won’t show it though.)
▪ You will earn their respect if you don’t give in. (They won’t show it though.)
▪ If you succeed in saying ‘no’ you will feel good about yourself. And, you will have increased your capacity to say ‘no’ in the future.
‘When you conform to other people’s expectations they like you more than you do.’
5. ‘Is everyone else going along with this idea?’
‘Who isn’t going along with it? Will I comply because so many others are doing it? If so, when will I begin to make my own decisions?’
6. ‘Can I refuse?’
▪ Do I value the moral compass I’m making for myself?
▪ Can I find other people saying ‘no’ and garner their support?
▪ Can I practise my assertiveness skills? After all, I am not obliged to justify my position or solve their problem. I can just say: ‘No. Not interested.’ Or, ‘No, this is what I want.’ Or, ‘I understand what you are asking me to do, but no.’
7. Can I talk with someone about this?
8. Can I assist a friend experiencing peer pressure? Can I declare firmly, ‘I’m with him, and we’re saying no!’
Become a legend. As D’Arcy Lyness, from the kidshealth.org website says: ‘. . . often it just takes one person to speak out or take a different action to change a situation. Your friends may follow if you have the courage to do something different or refuse to go along with the group. Consider yourself a leader, and know that you have the potential to make a difference.’
From Sarah Edelman’s book, ‘Change Your Thinking’:
‘The problem is that sometimes, in order to be genuine or to express ourselves honestly, we need to say or do things that might set us apart. It may be that we take a stand against a prevailing point-of-view, choose not to go when everyone else is going, choose not to laugh when we do not think something is funny or choose not to care if we do not think it matters . . . Of course, sometimes it is appropriate to compromise – it may be perfectly valid to do things that we do not particularly want to do, out of consideration for others. However, at times it is important to express ourselves honestly, even if this means standing out from the crowd.’
Q. ‘Mark, do we conform often?’
More often than you realise. You might, for example, be influenced by the laugh track on a television comedy. Producers use them for a reason. Although that’s not important, it does indicate that we humans are more suggestible than we realise.
Q. ‘It’s hard to resist pressure sometimes. Whether I like it or not, I am concerned about what others think of me.’
No matter what you have said or done, people think about you for mere seconds. People dwell on matters pertaining to their lives, they don’t dwell on you. They have their own concerns, their own life. You would be surprised how little people think about you.
‘That’s hardly encouraging!’
It’s liberating. Once you realise how free you are of other people’s scrutiny, you can feel free to live your life the way you want to live it.
‘But none of us want to stand out, even for mere seconds. If we stand out we feel disconnected. We don’t want to feel isolated from others.’
Yes, when we stand out we do feel disconnected and vulnerable, but we also find that the world doesn’t end. And we know we stand out for the right reasons, and know that we would be respected by those we respect. We connect with them. So, in the long-term, we benefit. By allowing ourselves to ‘stand out’ for the right reasons, we gain belief in ourselves and in the decisions we make. We add to our inner authority.
‘Confidence is not “they will like me”; confidence is “I’ll be fine if they don’t”.’
‘The stronger and more wide-ranging our need for approval, the more prone to anxiety, depression and poor self-esteem we become. In addition, we are more likely to behave in self-defeating ways – trying too hard to impress or please others, and always putting our own needs last. Paradoxically, this behaviour frequently has the opposite effect to what we are trying to achieve – people sense our desperation and sometimes treat us like the second-class citizen that we present ourselves to be.
’ Dr. Sarah Edelman, in her book, Change Your Thinking.
‘Having someone dislike you makes you stop to think about why they think the way they do.’
Kevin Sheedy, footy legend, from his book, Stand Your Ground.