Carey Burtt’s superb “Mind Control Made Easy or How to Become a Cult Leader” (2000).
It may be fun, but this is no comedy, it’s more like a documentary. Cults thrive on our vulnerabilities, and a good demonstration of just how vulnerable we all are was given in a series of experiments conducted by social psychologist Solomon Asch in the 1950s.
In the video above you can watch a modern reproduction of the experiment. All involved are “confederates”, except for the one person who is the unsuspecting subject.
Asked about a simple obvious question, everyone will give correct answers at first, but then will start to give unanimously wrong answers. Again and again.
Will the sole subject eventually give in and give the same, but wrong, answer as all the others?
As you can see, and hundreds of reproductions have confirmed, they eventually do, in an alarming proportion. More than one third of the times the subject gives in to the collective error, and up to three quarters of the subjects eventually gave in at some point.
No one was told to conform. There was nothing to gain or to lose. This is spontaneous social conformity.
“That we have found the tendency to conformity in our society so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call White Black is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct”, wrote Asch.
Beyond its worrying main results, Asch’s Social Conformity Experiments are also enlightening in their details and variations.
If even one of the confederates gives a different answer, the conformity drops dramatically (from 5% to 10%). And this dissenting minority doesn’t even has to give the correct answer. It just has to manifest a different opinion.
There’s more. The conformity gets stronger when the confederates grow in number from one to three, unsurprisingly. But from three up to 10 to 15 confederates, the conformity don’t keep growing in a significant way. We would expect it to grow in linear form as the group gets bigger, but apparently things do not work that way.
We may also assume that those subjects who eventually gave the wrong answer knew they were wrong, and did so in a conscious manner so as to avoid conflict. But apparently, things do not work that way.
The subjects blamed their errors as their own fault, and even though they may not have been entirely sure of their choice, on the other hand they didn’t consider it clearly incorrect. Cognitive dissonance?
Surprise, surprise, a recent reproduction of the experiment using fMRI (a “brain scan”) suggests that social conformity does indeed alters the perception of reality. The areas of the brain activated during the crucial cases of conformity weren’t those high-level areas dealing with conflict and planning (“I know this is wrong, but I will give the same answer as everyone else”), but those more elementary dealing with perception (“oh well, that thing really looks like the other”).
For more on Asch’s Social Conformity Experiments – including its difference among different countries and between the 1950s and now – check this meta-analysis (PDF). The NYTimes has an item on the recent experiment with brain scans, and the detailed paper of that study can also be read here (PDF).
This is just one of the 5 Psychological Experiments That Prove Humanity is Doomed.
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