In Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic, psychologist Jean Twenge argues that we’re all becoming more individualistic.  One measure of this is our willingness to go against the crowd.  She offers many types of evidence, but I was particularly intrigued by her discussion of the afterlife of a famous experiment in psychology.

In 1951, social psychologist Solomon Asch placed eight male Swarthmore students around a table for an experiment in conformity.  They were asked to consider two cards, one with three lines of differing lengths and another with one line.  He asked each student, one by one, which line on the card of three was the same length as the lone line on the second card. Each group looked at 18 pairs of cards like this:

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Asch was only interested in the last student’s response.  The first seven were confederates. In six trials, Asch instructed all the confederates to give the correct answer.  In twelve, however, the other seven would all choose the same obviously wrong answer.  Asch counted how often the eighth student would go against the crowd in these cases, breaking consensus and offering up a solitary, but correct answer.

He found that conformity was surprisingly common.  Three-quarters of the study subjects incorrectly went with the majority in at least one trial and a third did so half the time or more.  This was considered a stunning example of people’s willingness to lie about what they are seeing with their own eyes in order to avoid rocking the boat.

But then there was Vietnam and anti-war protesters, hippies and free love, the women’s and gay liberation movement, and civil rights victories.  By the 1960s, it was all about rejecting the establishment, saying no, and envisioning a more authentic life.  Things changed. And so did this experiment.

By the mid-1990s, there were 133 replications of Asch’s study.  Psychologists Rod Bond and Peter Smith decided to add them all up.  They found that the tendency for individuals to conform to the group fell over time.

One of the abstract take-away points from this is that our psychologies — indeed, even our personalities — are malleable.   In fact, the results of many studies, Twenge writes, suggest that “when you were born has more influence on your personality than the family who raised you.” When encountering claims of timeless and cultureless truths about human psychology, then, it is always good to ask ourselves what scientists might find a few decades later.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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