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The Asch Conformity Test

Are you part of the 74% that will knowingly choose the wrong answer to fit in?

A few weeks ago I learned about a series of psychology experiments done by Solomon Asch in the 1950s known as the Asch Conformity tests. I was shocked by the results and engrossed with tracking their second and third order effects. Like a newly learned word that you start seeing everywhere, I can’t seem to go a day without being confronted with Solomon Asch’s findings.

The method of the study was to ask a very simple, visual-based question to a group of six to eight participants. The participants were shown a card with a line on it, the reference line, followed by another card with three lines on it labeled a, b, and c. The participants were then asked to say out loud which of the three lines matched the length of the reference line. However, only one person in the group was a real participant. The others were all confederates — actors who were instructed by Asch. The group was asked 18 rounds of these “line questions” which were called trials. The real participant always answered last or second to last.

The answer would be C in this example.

Now this is where things get interesting. The confederates would answer correctly in the first two trials. Then they would all answer incorrectly in 12 of the next 16 trials known as the “critical trials.” In aggregate, participants conformed to the obviously wrong answer 37% of the time and 75% of participants conformed at least once. In a control group with no confederates, <1% gave the wrong answer to the same questions.

The conclusion, at least based on this study, is that a large portion of us will consciously or subconsciously make an obviously wrong decision to be with the consensus. I had been warned about the dangers of peer pressure during DARE in middle school but this takes it to a whole new level. I, like most of us, would like to think that I would have no problem being disagreeable and picking the correct line against the group. But it’s caused me to reflect on other less obvious choices that I might be making or have made in the past.

For me, it reinforces the importance of being willing to be disagreeable while maintaining humility — being willing to stand for your convictions, even against your peers, while still being open to new information that could change your mind. The connection to entrepreneurship is clear: most transformative companies are themselves disagreeable. Martine Rothblatt and United Therapeutics, Brian Chesky and Airbnb or Travis Kalanick and Uber were all companies that went against the public consensus. I have no doubt that the three of them would pass the Asch Conformity test.

Another of the countless areas where the consequences of this study show up is in company culture. One of my childhood friends runs a startup in West Africa and we often talk about the unique challenges in operating in a foreign culture. In his country, there is a very strong familial hierarchy. Children are raised to be extremely deferential to their elders. These values are heavily reinforced and continue with people into adulthood. It means that my friend has a very obedient workforce but, as he shared with me, one that has a lot of difficulty “speaking truth to power.” He explained that there had been multiple times where he was implementing a project where people on his team knew it was a bad idea but didn’t say anything. When he learned about this and confronted them on why they didn’t say anything, they replied that it wasn’t their place to disagree with him. At which point, he had to start changing the culture to welcome feedback from all levels of employees.

This is an exaggerated example highlighted by the differences in two cultures, but versions of this are happening in organizations big and small across the world. If you’re reading this and you run an organization, you should ask yourself: have I set up an environment and hired the type of people that are willing to speak out if they see something wrong, even if it’s an unpopular opinion? If you’re interested in more tactical advice in this area I suggest What You Do Is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz.

I’ll end with this amazing video of another one of Asch’s experiments that was shared with me after originally posting the article. Enjoy!

Prime Movers Lab invests in breakthrough scientific startups founded by Prime Movers, the inventors who transform billions of lives. We invest in seed-stage companies reinventing energy, transportation, infrastructure, manufacturing, human augmentation and computing

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