“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”
– Abraham Lincoln
When someone comes into sudden possession of power and leadership, they become highly influential. Just look at the world around us – we idolise celebrity figures, adhere to the opinions of politicians, and often unknowingly follow along with the hidden messages behind big corporations.
That being said, how often do we pause to think about whether or not we really chose to do so?
The news of the recent Facebook privacy scandal caused a global uproar. People belonging to the site felt incredibly wronged after it was revealed that their private information was being exchanged for the purpose of Facebook’s financial gain. They felt as though they were from that moment on turned into ‘just a number’, and the site seemed to diminish in it’s appeal as a place for honest connection and individual expression. But don’t we repeatedly enforce a similar, albeit more mild, type of consent every time we willingly upload a post on internet platforms? Sharing all matter of details from our lives to keep current, up to date, and relevant to our friends, family, and even strangers we would love to win the attention of.
If we look closely, aren’t we all partaking in the act of conformity in some way or another?
In an episode of Russell Brand’s ‘Under The Skin’ podcast, sociology film maker Adam Curtis highlighted this revelation, saying:
“If you talk to technological enthusiasts about Facebook shutting people off into their own little echo chambers they’ll say “but it’s efficient, and it works” but it’s actually dealing with the problem of individualism because it’s allowing people to be assembled in groups, yet feel like individuals. Maybe the whole idea of efficiency used in those terms is actually a political ideology, because what they’re saying is ‘we constantly keep people in this situation by reading stuff and feeding stuff to them.’ Which is actually a conservative idea because then people get frightened of change. And if you get frightened of change then you’re actually feeding the power. Real power doesn’t work by someone saying ‘you must do this.’ It works when we are complacent within it, because we accept it as natural and therefore we become easily manipulated. Stability is the enemy of change.”
The questions that we then must ask are clear –
Collectively, as humans, how do we respond to authority?
How far would we be willing to go in order to be accepted, and not rock the boat?
To conform or not conform?
There have been a great number of studies and experiments conducted in past decades attempting to get to the bottom of these very questions. Two of the most famous tests were Stanley Milgram’s electrical shock theory, and Solomon Asch’s group line test. These theories are both still in debate, and the conclusions seem to be ever evolving… As the nature of society and the complex environments and scenarios we find ourselves in continue to develop and present new context for consideration.
The Asch Conformity Experiment:
The 1950’s Asch conformity experiments have been recognised as pivotal in human psychology history, motivating valuable insight into the realm of conformity and group behavior.
The study explained the behavioural origins of what we now flippantly dismiss as ‘peer pressure’, revealing that most people are pretty easily swayed when it comes to making decisions within a group. When the experiments were held, participants were told they were taking a simple vision test and then asked to identify which of three lines was the same length as a target line. Although the instruction was fairly simple and straightforward, the students inconsistent answers provided Asch with the truth he went on to prove to the world. Almost 75% of the participants went along with the answers given by others at least one time, when they were asked in a group setting. As opposed to the times they were asked privately, when all were highly accurate in the assessment. When the trials were combined, the results showed that people conformed to the incorrect group answer approximately one-third of the time. Meaning participants intentionally chose the incorrect line as their answer majority of the time, just to match the opinion of other students.
Aka: people were willing to ignore reality and give an incorrect answer all in order to conform to their peers, especially if the group involved 3 or more people.
When asked why they willingly supplied the incorrect answer, students honestly stated they knew the rest of the group had the answer wrong but did not want to be the only one standing for the answer they chose – all in fears of facing ridicule and in hopes of avoiding conflict.
The tests proved that conformity is both influenced by a need to fit in, attain approval, remain ambiguous rather than outspoken when under strict authority, and can also stem from a belief that others are more informed or apt in certain intellectual matters.
Typical contexts conformity thrives in are said to be scenarios when group size is larger, when a task becomes more difficult and one feels faced with uncertainty and self doubt, and when one perceives others in the group to be of higher social status, importance, or power.
The Milgram Experiment:
This is arguably the most famous of studies within the realm of psychology and human behaviour.
The experiment involved participants being instructed under strict authority to administer electric shocks to other people whenever they answered a question incorrectly. The participants were told that the person answering the question was a ‘learner’, when in reality they were simply pretending to be shocked, and taking part in the experiment as a confederate.
Milgram set out to reveal just how far people would go when they believed they were under the control of an authority figure who could inflict consequences if they didn’t comply. What he found was that the conflict between obedience to authority could overwrite an individual’s personal conscience in high pressure situations. Milgram then took his findings and used them to examine justifications from officers accused of acts of genocide in World War II.
‘Obedience’ was an over arching theme, that fuelled further questions such as: “could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices, or were they really just following orders from their superiors?”
Still to this day Milgram’s analysis is applied to cases in criminal psychology, bringing some clarification to the common defence statements used by those on trial. His work plays a vital role in the development of ethical guidelines, through revealing that in extreme cases ordinary people can be influenced to commit atrocities and may even go to unthinkable lengths to obey instructions. n his summary, it was stated that 65% of participants were willing to follow instruction and harm ‘the learner’ despite the fact that person seemed to be in serious distress or even unconscious. Yikes!
‘The Four Tendencies Quiz’ by Gretchen Rubin is a great tool to discover your own attitudes toward upholding, rebelling, obliging or questioning habits, orders and structure. If you are personality test and self improvement junkies like us it’s a bit of fun, but also hugely beneficial when applied to your work approach, attitudes in relationships, and sticking to personal values and goals.
Navigating this world and the complex equation of life can be easier when we are liberated by the choices we have, when it comes to our thoughts, decisions, and actions. Once we know ourselves well, we can better utilise our skills, stand up for our voice, and let ourselves and others be seen. We want to encourage you to believe that community is everything, and that there is power in numbers, people of Societe. But we also want to empower you to know that when your integrity is being compromised you don’t just have to ‘go along with the crowd.’
Here’s to breaking some rules together!