Video stills by Pablo Zuleta Zahr
By DAVID BERREBY
Published: March 30, 2008
When Eliot Spitzer resigned his governorship for committing the very crimes he’d publicly denounced only a few months before, he seemed mystifyingly inconsistent. Yet one character trait does shine through the separate, supposedly incompatible compartments of his life. A self-described “steamroller,” he had that self-confident drive to do what he’d decided needed doing, never mind others’ expectations, never mind who or what gets hurt. In politics, and in his sexual life, he embodied nonconformity. Voters ate it up when he ran for governor, because Americans have a prejudice in favor of lone wolves. Moral superiority, we like to think, belongs to the person who stands alone.
Until recently, social science went along with this idea. Lab-based research supposedly furnished slam-dunk evidence that, as the social psychologist Solomon Asch put it, “the social process is polluted” by “the dominance of conformity.” That research, though, was rooted in its time and place: The United States in the aftermath of World War II, when psychologists and sociologists focused on the conformity that made millions give in to totalitarian regimes.
Lately, however, some researchers have been dissenting from the textbook version. Where an earlier generation saw only a contemptible urge to go along, revisionists see normal people balancing their self-respect against their equally valuable respect for other people, and for human relationships. For evidence, revisionists say, look no further than those very experiments that supposedly proved the evils of conformity.
The psychologists Bert Hodges and Anne Geyer recently took a new look at a well-known experiment devised by Asch in the 1950s. Asch’s subjects were asked to look at a line printed on a white card and then tell which of three similar lines was the same length. The answer was obvious, but the catch was that each volunteer was sitting in a small group whose other members were actually in on the experiment. Asch found that when those other people all agreed on the wrong answer, many of the subjects went along with the group, against the evidence of their own senses.
But the question (Which of these lines matches the one on the card?) was not posed just once. Each subject saw 18 sets of lines, and the group answer was wrong for 12 of them. Examining all the data, Hodges and Geyer found that many people were varying their answers, sometimes agreeing with the group, more often sticking up for their own view. (The average participant gave in to the group three times out of 12.)
This means that the subjects in the most famous “people are sheep” experiment were not sheep at all — they were human beings who largely stuck to their guns, but now and then went along with the group. Why? Because in getting along with other people, most decent people know, as Hodges and Geyer put it, the “importance of cooperation, tact and social solidarity in situations that are tense or difficult.”
In a similar spirit, others have taken a new look at the famous experiments on “obedience to authority” conducted by Asch’s student Stanley Milgram. Milgram’s subjects, assuming they were part of a memory test, were asked to administer what they thought were increasingly strong electric shocks to another person (who was, in reality, another experimenter pretending to be pained). Encouraged only by an occasional “Please go on” and the like, every one went well beyond “Very Strong Shock,” and the majority went to the 450-volt end of the scale, which was two notches above the one labeled “Danger: Severe Shock.”
Horrifying, in most retellings. But, as the University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein has argued, Milgram’s “subjects were not simply obeying a leader, but responding to someone whose credentials and good faith they thought they could trust.” Without that kind of trust society would fall apart tomorrow, because most of what we know about the world comes to us from other people. Milgram’s experiment, then, doesn’t prove that people are inclined to obey any nut job in a white coat. It shows instead that in difficult situations, when they wrestle with the line between trust and skepticism, trust often wins. Much of the time, that’s a good thing.
In other words, the interesting data in the Asch and Milgram studies have been distorted into a simple takeaway: “Call it like you see it”; never mind others’ feelings, opinions or traditions. Of course, no society should ask for knee-jerk obedience to any command. But, as the dissenters point out, there are dangers in a knee-jerk refusal to get in line. For example, in a version of the Milgram experiment in which the dupe is seated in a group of three, he will defy the “experimenter” and behave humanely — if the other two people refuse to inflict further shocks. That kind of conformity is, to put it mildly, desirable.
David Berreby is the author of “Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind,” which will be published in paperback in the fall.