Why You Will Read This Article...

...Because I told you to, that's why. The sad truth about we humans is that we're an awfully conformist bunch. When we are told to do or say something, we're most likely to comply.

But don't just believe me when I say it. Research by social scientists over the past fifty years has established this claim not only as a common observation but as empirically verified fact.

The Asch Experiment - Conformity to Perceptions

One of the first (if less famous) experiments on conformity was Solomon Asch's study of perception. In the early 1950s, Professor Asch brought seven subjects together into a room. He displayed a series of cards, each of which displayed three lines, and asked subjects to identify the lines that matched in length.

The secret of the experiment was that six out of the seven subjects were confederates - that is, they were hired by the experimenter - who sometimes gave obviously wrong answers. The question of the experiment was to see how often the one real subject would go along with the others and give an obviously wrong answer.

The answer is surprising: three-quarters of the subjects gave wrong answers, even when the answer was obviously wrong. Most of these subjects expressed relief when Professor Asch revealed his trick at the experiment's end.

To read more about the Asch experiment, check out Rock Irvin's book, "The Legacy of Solomon Asch."

The Milgram Experiment - Conformity to Directions

Stanley Milgram, who did postdoctoral work with Professor Asch, also wondered about conformity. His question, driven by the horrific acts committed by Germans under the Nazi regime, was a bit different: when will people follow orders to commit a harmful act?

The setup of this experiment was also rather sneaky. He hired a mild-mannered, slightly pudgy, middle-aged man to come in and pretend to be a "learner". After meeting the learner, the real subject and he would be led to separate rooms that were nevertheless connected by an audio link. The job of the real subject, the "teacher", was to read off word pairs for the learner to remember. Then the teacher read just the first word in the pair. If the learner gave the correct second word in response, the teacher was to respond, "correct." If, on the other hand, the learner gave a wrong response - or no response at all - the teacher was to provide a shock to the learner. As the learner provided more wrong answers, the teacher was to give stronger and stronger shocks.

Nobody was ever really shocked, but the experiment was set up to make it appear that the "learner" was indeed being shocked. The shock machine had a gauge which included labels like "mild," "moderate," "severe," "danger," and an ambiguous "XXX". As the learner seemed to receive more and more severe shocks, the learner would provide stronger and stronger protests, demand to end the experiment, and finally, after revealing a heart condition, scream and fall silent.

The researcher simply stood by and, when prompted by the subject, would reiterate that shocks were to be delivered. No physical force was used to force subjects to (apparently) shock the learners. Yet, although subjects complained and got very distraught, the majority of subjects continued to provide shocks when asked to do so by the researcher. The majority conformed, even when they didn't want to.

To read more about Milgram's experiment, check out his excellent book, Obedience to Authority.

The Stanford Prison Experiment - Conformity to Roles

Phillip Zimbardo carried out an experiment just a few years after Milgram, but with a different initial interest. He wanted to know why prison environments were so fraught with difficulty. Was it something about criminals as individuals that led to inmate violence and prison riots? Was it something about guards as individuals that led to physical brutality and other abuses?

To answer that question, Zimbardo got undergraduate students at Stanford University to serve as subjects - people who were not themselves criminals or guards. When put in similar circumstances, would these students play the roles of criminal and guard?

To be brief, it turns out they did -- all too well, unfortunately. When placed in a confining environment (the basement of an academic building) and only told (according to random assignment) that they were to be a "prisoner" or a "guard", they conformed to the roles with aplomb. "Prisoners" began to snitch on one another and display other prisoner-like behaviors. "Guards" began to force prisoners to clean out toilet bowls with their hands, beat prisoners, and force them to carry out humiliating tasks. Even Zimbardo, who had assumed the role of "Warden," began to take that role more seriously than the role of "Researcher," sacrificing scientific procedure for the sake of higher security. When randomly assigned a role with a set of role expectations, subjects stongly conformed to those expectations.

To learn more about the Stanford Prison Experiment, visit the Stanford Prison Experiment Slideshow on the web.

When do People Dissent?

Conformity is not, thankfully, universal. Not everybody conforms, and even those who do conform don't do so all the time. What, then, leads to variation in conformity? When do people dissent?

Across these studies and others, the two most important factors determining the extent of conformity seem to be:
1) Closeness to individuals in authority
2) Distance from the object of intended behavior.

Closeness to an individual in authority might be as simple, in the case of Milgram's experiment, as physical proximity to the "researcher" who reminded the subject of their need to shock the learner. When the experimenter was made less proximate, the subjects conformed less often.

Reading Seymour Hirsch's reporting of the massacre of My Lai in Vietnam, those who dissented, and ultimately who ended the massacre, were members of the military who were elsewhere when the orders were issued and the massacre began. The Stanford Prison Experiment was only brought to an end when another psychologist who had not been participating in the experiment happened upon it and saw what was happening through the eyes of an outsider. This individual was not under the authority of either Zimbardo or the guards, and freely communicated her vehement dissatisfaction.

In Milgram's shock experiment, subjects were less likely to conform to the command to harm the "learner" when they could hear the screams of the learner. They were still less likely to conform to the researcher's demands when the learner was in the same room as they, and were least likely to conform when they were required to actually hold the learner's hand down on the shock plate.

In other words, as the "distance" between the acts of the individual and the consequences of the individual's action decreases -- as the individual is more likely to directly encounter the consequences of his or her action -- that individual is more likely to buck authority and dissent.


In sum, conformity seems to be a basic trait of humanity. Carefully controlled (if perhaps unethical) experiments demonstrate that we follow others more often than we might like to think. However, it also seems to true that we don't always conform. We are more likely to conform when authority figures are close by, and are more likely to express our individuality and dissent when the consequences of our actions are more apparent. When thinking about the kind of world we'd like to live in, and when imagining the kind of people we would most like to be, we might be well advised to consider how the way in which our modern society is set up makes us more like the lone and strident wolf - or more like a pliant sheep.

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