The Conformity Instinct

In 1951 social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments to determine to what degree individual belief and opinion can be influenced by a misguided majority.

In these tests, participants were brought into a room with a group of people. Every member of the group with the exception of the test subject were actors. The group was then shown cards with three lines of various lengths, and were asked which line was longer. The test subjects always answered last, or next to last so that they would hear the actor’s response first. The actors each provided the same wrong answer.

The vast majority of test subjects (75%) conformed to the incorrect answer at least some of the time. 36.8% conformed consistently. The education level or IQ of the subjects had little or no bearing on the outcome.

Later tests which monitored brain activity confirmed that social conformity rewrites sensory information at a neurological level. Peer pressure is so powerful that it can override what we see with our own eyes. This effect is amplified when evidence is not directly available or easy to understand.

The conformity instinct is triggered anytime there is the perception of group consensus, or social momentum. This perception can be simulated by coordinating false statements or distorting the results of opinion polls.

Repetition can mimic consensus. Studies have shown that when individuals are exposed to an idea repeatedly, even if that repetition originates from a single source, they gradually come to believe that that idea is widely held. A single individual can spark ideological contagion by repeating until others follow suit. This effect is amplified if the propagator holds an aura of authority or has access to mass media.

In studying conformity Asch stumbled upon the antidote. If a test subject was exposed to a single voice of dissent (if one of the actors gave the right answer), the spell of conformity was broken, and the subject was capable of answering correctly. This is why authoritarian regimes always seek to control the flow of information, and suppress ideas which contradict the official narrative.

In an age of universal deception, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. Even one voice can turn the tide.

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