Standing up to the mob is never easy, and we should commend those who do it
A famous experimental method developed by Solomon Asch in the 1950s, in a project now known as the Asch conformity experiments, studied the effects of majority opinion on individual behaviour. Research participants were gathered in a group and asked to look at two images: the first showing a single line, the second showing three lines of obviously different lengths, A, B, and C. They were then tasked with declaring — crucially, out loud — which line in the second image matched the length of the line in the first image.
There was a catch. Unbeknownst to the participants, the other members of the group were actors, and sometimes those actors would give the correct response, and sometimes the incorrect one. Asch’s key finding was that the majority opinion made a significant difference to the answers participants gave because a sizeable proportion bowed to group pressure and gave the incorrect response, despite the evidence of their own eyes.
Asch’s work formed part of an academic effort in the decades following the Second World War to attempt to explain how seemingly nice, ordinary people could have either personally committed, or tacitly enabled, Nazi atrocities. The findings from Asch’s studies contributed to a new view of human nature in which people were understood to be frighteningly vulnerable to groupthink.
But the reality is more complicated. What is often forgotten about the Asch conformity experiments is that the vast majority of participants defied majority opinion at least once, and a quarter did so every time.
This week, a series of videos went viral on Twitter which appear to show American Black Lives Matter protestors harassing passersby and demanding they show solidarity. The most widely shared shows one (white) woman refusing to raise her fist, despite a large group of angry protestors (also white) screaming in her face.
1) In a scene that played out several times Monday, a Black Lives Matter protest that began in Columbia Heights confronted White diners outside D.C. restaurants, chanting “White silence is violence!” and demanding White diners show their solidarity. #DCProtests pic.twitter.com/fJbPM76vb0
— Fredrick Kunkle WaPo (@KunkleFredrick) August 25, 2020
The video provides a stark illustration of the remarkable capacity of some individuals to resist majority pressure. The woman at the centre of the video, who has since been named as Lauren Victor, sits calmly and refuses to bow to intimidation while almost all of the people around her, including her dining companion, have their fists meekly raised. I have no doubt that, if Victor had taken part in the Asch experiments, she would have been part of the quarter of participants who doggedly insisted on telling the truth every time.
Because, as this video so vividly demonstrates, vulnerability to groupthink varies substantially between individuals. There is a modest correlation with age, with older people less likely to bow to group pressure than younger people — an effect that holds true in this video, in which Victor is noticeably older than the young members of the mob.
And personality also has an effect, with agreeable people much more likely to conform to majority opinion. Which means that the people who are most able to withstand extreme group pressure are often dislikable. But they are also some of the most extraordinary members of our society, and they play an immensely valuable role in pushing back against groupthink.
Whatever the merits of any particular cause, some people will consistently defy the majority view. Those people are frequently maligned and sometimes met with violence. But, in this case, Lauren Victor has been widely praised as a hero, and quite rightly. She demonstrates the sort of moral courage that does not always receive the praise it deserves.