Asch reported, in 1965, a study on the power of group pressure.
He gathered a series of groups of seven or eight subjects together for a purported experiment on visual acuity under varying conditions. In fact, only one individual was a genuine subject. The others were confederates of Asch. The experiment involved showing a series of sets of three straight lines to the group, adding a fourth line and asking them which line the fourth one was equal to. In all cases, the answer was obvious. The subject was last to answer in each case.
After several trials, where everyone gave the right answer to establish an atmosphere of normality, the confederates started to give answers that were incorrect. The subject, remember, was always last to answer. Despite the fact that the answers now being given by the other people were wrong and obviously wrong, 33% of subjects would go with the group. Peer pressure towards conformity with the group is extremely powerful.
Asch found that personality type had an effect on results. Some people were swayed by group opinion much of the time while others remained more independent
The need to conform, to be accepted by a group, is at the basis of the Asch experiments. Some people feel this need more than others. Perhaps, as Maslow tells us, for many people such a need exists only for as long as it is unsatisfied and until other needs become ‘preponent’ as he put it. Reddin, in paraphrasing Maslow, inserted a ‘need for independence’ above the need for affiliation in Maslow’s hierarchy. Nevertheless, such a need is at the basis of team spirit, teamwork and the whole nature of the affiliative society. Less excitingly perhaps, it is the basis of the fashion industry and indeed much of the consumer society in which people measure themselves by whether they are wearing the right clothes or have the right consumer goods.
It has also been the basis of more dangerous aspects of human life. One might argue that social conformity is necessary for any political movement to survive and there is little doubt that uncritical conformity was the villain in the outbreak of National Socialism in Germany.
The willingness of people to cause pain to others was studied by Milgram in 1967. In a series of very unpleasant experiments, he invited volunteers to participate in a study on the effects of punishment on learning. Volunteers sat at a desk and operated what seemed to be a mechanism for administering electric shocks to someone opposite who was ostensibly another volunteer. The mechanism was ‘administered’ levels of shock and was clearly marked with labels such as ‘slight shock’ and ‘danger – severe shock.’ The volunteer operating the mechanism was instructed to administer increasing levels of shock each time the other person answered a question wrongly. Despite the agonized reactions of the person opposite, volunteers were willing to administer what appeared to be 200 volt shocks. If they demurred, the experimenter would say ‘The experiment requires that you continue,’ and most did. Naturally the other person was not a volunteer but an actor who received no shock at all and acted out a response.