CHAPTER 14Believing Together

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

—Mark Twain

In one of the most famous psychology experiments of all time, Solomon Asch showed a group of participants some sets of lines.1 Each member of the group, in turn, would declare which line was the same length as a target line.

Try it for yourself with the following example.2 Which of the three lines matches the target line on the left?

An illustration of two boxes. Box 1: A line. Box 2: Three lines A, B, and C.

Pretty easy, right? However, each experiment group contained only one real participant. The rest were confederates—actors who were paid to act as participants. Asch would begin by asking the actors which line they thought was most accurate, leaving the real participant to answer last. In the control condition (without the lying actors), there was an error rate of less than 1%. Nearly everyone could tell which lines were the same length. But when confederates were instructed to give obviously incorrect answers, real participants went along with the wider group's belief a shocking 37% of the time—even when it was painfully untrue (go back and look at those lines again!). More than 70 years later, Asch's words still ring true: “That intelligent, well-meaning, young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern.”3 If you've ever bitten your tongue rather than express a contrary opinion to the way that ...

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