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Who’ll decline to toe the line?


TO WHAT extent will a person think for himself, and not relinquish his independent judgment? The psychologist Muzafer Sherif set out to investigate this question in 1936. In his experiment, subjects were seated in a dark room and were told: ‘In a short while you will see a spot of light. It will begin to move. Your task is to say out loud your estimate of the distance it has moved.’

Most TCW Defending Freedom readers will already have their antennae on full alert. The instruction: ‘Your task is to say out loud your estimate of the distance it has moved’ indicates that a ‘perceptual set’ is being established.

In fact the light did not move at all. The phenomenon of a stationary light appearing to move when there is no visual reference point available is called the ‘autokinetic effect’. The movement was imaginary. Sherif’s results showed that group opinion quickly agreed on a consensus.

An ambiguous situation does not have an obviously correct answer. In the Sherif experiment, one person’s estimate was as good or bad as anyone else’s. But the tendency of the group to agree provoked further interest. What about those situations where the matter under scrutiny was not ambiguous? The psychologist Solomon Asch examined this question in 1951 with a famous series of experiments.

The set-up was simple. Eight students were invited to participate in ‘an experiment concerning vision’. The students were seated in a room and the experimenter showed them a series of cards marked with four lines. One line was the target line. The other three lines, of varying lengths marked A, B and C, were the comparison lines. The students were asked to declare out loud in turn which of the three comparison lines was closest in length to the target line. However only the last of the students in the group asked to choose a line was a bona fide subject. The others were all stooges in cahoots with the experimenter. The stooges had been instructed always to agree with each other, whichever of the three lines was chosen to represent the best match.

With several of the cards the stooges agreed on the line that was the best match. But with the other cards an incorrect line was purposely chosen and the stooges all agreed that this line was the best match. To what extent would the innocent subject in this charade abandon his own judgment, and go along with the majority choice?

The results were surprising. In all of the experimental trials, 75 per cent of the naïve subjects conformed at least once to the group decision. Only 25 per cent of naïve subjects never conformed.

In the Sherif experiment the stimulus (movement) was illusory. In the Asch experiment the stimulus (line length) was real. It should have been plain for anyone who had eyes in their head to see which line was the correct one. The naïve subjects had deliberately to override their own senses if they chose to agree with an incorrect choice made by the other members of the group.

Why bother with all this fandango? Most people trust their own judgment and are happy to form their own opinions and stick to them. But those who would manipulate public opinion are aware of the tendency of naïve, trusting, unsuspecting people, when under duress or when the situation is ambiguous or unfamiliar, to look to others for guidance. Safety in consensus as well as safety in numbers. Using such knowledge, the herd can be gently shepherded, if that isn’t a mexed mitaphor.

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Steve Jamnik
Steve Jamnik
Steve Jamnik (pseudonym) was a student of psychology in the seventies, before ditching it to work in television.

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