Monday, July 04, 2016

Freedom not to conform

In these blogs I have talked about Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, who have shown how easily people submit to the authority of other people and how they tend to behave cruelly if the situation is there and if they have the power to do so. I referred also to Hannah Arendt, who has dedicated an important part of her work to the question why people do what other people tell them to do even if it should be clear that it’s morally wrong. She called it the “banality of evil”. However, when reading Martha C. Nussbaum’s book Political Emotions I realized that I didn’t mention at least one important researcher in this field, to whom she dedicates several pages: Solomon Asch. There is no excuse that I didn’t, for already during my study at the university I became acquainted with his work. Even more, Asch’s work, which dates from 1955, is one of the most famous studies on submission to authority and conformity. Although there were already many studies on conformity then, Asch realized that their conclusions had not a solid experimental base. That is what he wanted to provide with his investigation. Here I’ll not discuss Asch’s study in detail but present only the main lines.
The most striking result is that people tend to conform to the majority, even if it is wrong. Asch studied small groups. One person was the test subject and the others were accomplices of Asch. If all accomplices gave the wrong answer to a test question, the test person tended to give the wrong answer as well, even if it was clearly wrong. On purpose I write “tend”, for unlike what some summaries of Asch’s experiments say, many test persons answered independently. But at least a third gave way to group pressure. A minority of that size can be more important than it seems on the face of it, if one realizes that such a minority – the number of votes he received in a parliamentary election – brought Hitler to power in 1933.
Asch subjected the testees not only to the group pressure of one against all. For what would happen if the correct answer to a test question was supported by at least one other person in the group, although all other stooges of the researcher gave the false reply? Then we see that the test person regains his independence: He (or she) answered again what was correct. This remained so even if Asch’s accomplice who gave the right reply left the group after a few tests with a good excuse (if he simply left without an apparent reason, the test persons tended again to conform to the others left on the questions that followed, even if all of them gave the wrong answers).
I think that Asch’s investigation is relevant when one wants to know why people obey to authority and conform to the majority, even if a society is not the same as a small group. The research gives insight into the processes that make people cave to pressure, also if they know that the others are wrong. Although there are always dissidents in a society, the pressure of the majority who follows the leader or an authority can be so high that people comply. On the other hand, just the presence of dissenters can be important: Dissenters, especially when they are visible, can make that people make their own choices and express them against a pressure to give way. It’s one of the conclusions of Asch in his investigation. As Nussbaum puts it: “Group pressure is dangerous under all circumstances, since it is an impediment to truth telling. ... [Therefore] all decent societies have strong reasons to nourish and reward dissent and critical thinking, both for its intrinsic importance and for its effect on others” (p. 193). Or in Asch’s words: “Life in society requires consensus as an indispensable condition. But consensus, to be productive, requires that each individual contribute independently out of his experience and insight. When consensus comes under the dominance of conformity, the social process is polluted and the individual at the same time surrenders the powers on which his functioning as a feeling and thinking being depends.” Independent opinions are important plus the possibility to express them freely and without fear of penalty of any kind, including the pressure to conform.

Sources: Solomon Asch, “Opinion and Social Pressure”, on website .
Martha C. Nussbaum’s book Political Emotions. Why Love Matters for Justice. Cambridge, Mass. etc.: Harvard University Press, 2013.

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