The Weekly Reflektion 02/2022

Agreeing with the majority in a group task is the easiest solution.

The task in the Asch experiment

How do you ensure conformity in a group does not lead to poor decisions?

In 1951, Solomon Asch, a pioneer in social psychology, performed an experiment to investigate how the effect of social pressure from a majority can make individuals conform. He used a task, given in the illustration, where there was an obvious correct answer, choosing which line A, B or C was the same length as the target line. The people used for the experiment were 50 male students from an American college, and they were organised into groups of 8. Seven of these, the stooges, would give the wrong answer, to see the effect on the 8th person, the participant, who was ignorant of the conspiracy of the others. When giving the answer, each person in the room had to state aloud the correct answer, the participant gave his answer last.

There were 18 trials, and in 12 of these the stooges gave a wrong answer. It was found that 32% of the participants conformed with the clearly incorrect majority. Interviews after the experiment concluded that most had gone along with the group for fear of being ridiculed or being thought ‘peculiar’. People conform because they want to fit in with the group, or because they believe the group is better informed than they are.

The experiment was viewed later as ‘a child of it’s time’, a reflection of the American 1950’s culture. In the 1950s America was very conservative, there was an ongoing anti-communist witch-hunt, which became known as McCarthyism, against anyone who was thought to hold sympathetic left-wing views. Conformity to American values was expected. Support for this comes from similar studies carried out in the 1970s and 1980s that show lower conformity rates.

Further experiments concluded that group size also contributes to conformity, with bigger groups giving more conformity. Also, the presence of one who goes against the majority reduces conformity. If the involved could give their answers in private, rather than in public in front of the other participants, less conformity was found. However, the more difficult the task, the more people conformed to the majority.

Many of the decisions we take within the organisation are difficult and complex exposing the group to a risk of conformity. We can use the results of these experiments in our work to prevent Major Accidents by being aware of the effect of social pressures on decisions. Encouraging a culture of challenge within your organisation will help avoid conformity. Following a series of poor decisions in the Yom Kippur war in 1973, the Israeli military introduced a philosophy called the ‘Tenth Man’. We had a Reflektion on this in week 11, 2020. If there are 10 people in a room and nine agree, the role of the tenth, the ‘devils advocate’, is to disagree and point out flaws in whatever decision the group has reached.

You can avoid conformity and improve decision-making in your organisation by considering the size of groups, the personalities of the people making up the group, and involving people with different competencies and background in the groups. How do you avoid conformity in your organisation?

Reflekt AS