What the Asch conformity studies tell us about fitting in at work

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Would you rather stand alone and be right, or be part of a group even if you know you are wrong?

One of the most interesting experiments in psychology explains why companies fail to innovate.

It is all about to what lengths people will go to fit in with the group, and not disagree with anyone even if they know something is wrong.

In an experiment by Soloman Asch in 1951, he told participants in an experiment that they were having their visual ability tested. In groups of six, they would be shown a line, and then three other lines a bit further away, where the participant needed to say out loud which of the three lines was the same length as the first line:

conformityEasy, right?

What the participants did not know that out of the six participants, only the fifth was a real participant. The four before him, and one after him, were all actors and knew about the experiment.

And these actors were there to put social pressure on the real participant to give the wrong answer.

As this video (from the 1970s about the experiment) shows, at first all the actors gave the correct answer to make the participant they could correctly judge the correct line length as well.

However, by the third experiment, all the actors began giving an obviously incorrect answer. There were 18 total experiments, with the actors giving wrong lengths in 12 of the 18.

Now confused, the real participant needs to listen to their peers give their answer, and determine if they would give an answer they feel is correct, but different than the consensus, or fit in with the group and give an answer they internally feel is wrong.

The results were striking:

  • 32% on average of the real participants conformed with the group and gave wrong answers
  • 75% of the real participants conformed at least once
  • 25% of the real participants never conformed
  • During the 6 of the 18 experiments where the actors gave the correct answer, less than 1% of the real participants gave a wrong answer

So the pressure to conform was so powerful that a third of participants were willing to go with the consensus.

What is also interesting is that in a situation where the real participant was not the only person giving the correct answer (actor 3 was instructed to give the correct answer before him as well) or when the real participant should not say his answer out loud (instead writing it on paper), they were significantly less likely to give the wrong answer.

Group size also seems to correlate with how likely someone is to conform. With one other person (i.e., actor) in the group conformity was 3%, with two others it increased to 13%. Optimum conformity effects (32%) were found with a majority of 3. Increasing the size of the majority beyond three did not increase the levels of conformity found. With too many actors, conformity actually fell, perhaps as the real participants became suspicious.

There seem to be two pressures which people feel to give the wrong answer.

Firstly, they don’t want to stand out from the group, as evolution has programmed our brains to seek safety as part of the group. (normative conformity)

And secondly, some participants may believe that the group knows better than they do, and that they may in fact be wrong even though they feel correct. (informational conformity)

The experiment has its critics though, citing how 1950s America placed a lot of pressure to conform. Follow-up experiments on British engineering, mathematics and chemistry students showed only one instance of conformity in 396 experiments. However, those same researchers found high levels of conformity in groups with a high pressure to conform to people in a more powerful position, such as those on parole.

What does conformity have to do with innovation?

There are numerous instances when people do not want to share their true views as part of their team.

This could be because their boss dominates conversations and the group conforms to their ideas (the HiPPo syndrome)

It could be because their management does not react well to negative results or bad news.

It could be because the individual is more introverted and does not feel comfortable sharing their views in group discussions.

Or it could be because the company does not have Psychological Safety and do not feel like they can discuss issues or their real feelings.

As a result, companies can languish and be disrupted because their members are not willing to go against the status quo.

In order to innovate, you need to create an environment where people don’t feel like speaking out against the consensus is a bad thing. Here is a great article showing you the best ways to do this.