November 6, 2009

Speaking Against Majority

Recently a commenter asked me why I do not simply remain silent about the reasons for my decision. Why create a blog about it? Why not just let the Church be and go on my way? I would like to revisit this here.

In 1956, a scientist named Asch was interested in conformity. Specifically, he wanted to know under what circumstances people conform to group pressures, and under what circumstances a person would not. Here's what he did:

Asch brought seven of his own students into a classroom. These seven were confederates (i.e., they knew what the study was about and were given instructions on how to behave). Asch then brought in the study participant, who thought that everyone else in the classroom was also a regular participant. Up on the board in the room was a set of two cards (there were a total of 12 sets) that looked something like this:
The researcher went down the line asking each of the participants to say which of the three lines on the right card most closely matched the length of the line on the left card. The confederates were instructed to give false answers on 7 of the 12 trials. What the researcher wanted to know was how the naive participant would respond depending on what the majority of the group said. It was obvious which line actually matched the model, so would the participant choose the right answer even when the majority chose the wrong answer?

What he found was that about 37% of participants gave an incorrect answer every time the confederates did, and about 75% of participants gave at least one incorrect answer when confederates did.

But getting back to the question, here's the most interesting finding, I think; when just one of the confederates went against the rest and chose the correct answer, participants were much more likely to also choose the correct answer. When just one confederate went against the other six, only 5-10% of the participants conformed to the majority!

To put it plainly, it seems that people will often choose something that they perceive as obviously wrong in order to go along with the majority around them (even in something as trivial as a visual test). The reasons for this could vary greatly, but most participants blamed their behavior on poor eyesight (which was controlled for in another part of the study). In other words, these people said to themselves, "Gee, I guess there's something going on here I don't understand. Everybody else seems to think B is the right answer, so maybe what I'm experiencing is wrong."

We see this kind of thing all the time in the LDS church; a believer first learns about polygamy or the denial of priesthood to Black persons, and tells himself, "Gee, that doesn't seem right. But there are so many other people here that think it's okay, so there must be something wrong with my perception. I'd better just do what they are doing."

But the study shows that if just one person has the courage to speak his or her mind and say, "Hold on a second - I really don't think that line B is the right answer. Every way I'm looking at it from right here says that line C is right," then the next person is that much more likely to say what he or she is really thinking. That person is much more likely to trust in his or her own judgment.

This is a large part of why I do not stay silent. I'm saying, "I really am not seeing how B could be the answer; here's why..." I sat on that back row for most of my life saying what everyone else was saying, even though it was not at all what I was seeing. Now, I am calling it like I see it, and if someone can explain to me how line B is more correct than line C, I am completely willing to discuss it. If someone else has been in that position for most of his or her life, feeling very uncomfortable about what he or she is seeing (or not seeing) on the Sunday School board, I am attempting to be that voice that says, "Follow your conscience. No matter what the majority says, follow your conscience. And call it like you see it."

Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies on independence and conformity: A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs, 70(9).

1 comment:

Christy Smith said...

Those studies are fascinating aren't they? I love the one where the subject gets on the elevator where everyone is facing the wrong way, so he/she turns around. I think your point is sadly so true. Good for you for standing up to say something...I'm sure you're giving other people the courage to the same and end the conflict in their hearts.