Broken brains - the terrifying things everyone is capable of doing (Part 2) cover image

Broken brains - the terrifying things everyone is capable of doing (Part 2)

Dorian Minors • April 5, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

Imagine one of the most complicated Lego contraptions you ever built without using the instructions. Did you ever run out of the pieces you needed to finish it? Maybe substituted two little, different coloured blocks for one long one? It wasn’t perfect, but it did the job. Well that’s kind of like the human brain (we think). And sometimes, that imperfect solution may have worked for a time, but causes some serious problems now. Or maybe it was always a problem, but no one ever noticed before. Well, psychology notices. Here’s the next in our mini-series on those problems and how to solve them.


The Conformity Experiments. Sounds terrifying right? Like The Nuclear Project. It doesn't necessarily tell you what it is, but the connotations in the title are enough to make you wince in apprehension. To make you even more apprehensive, this experiment heavily influenced Milgram's Obedience Experiment (another terrifying name, another terrifying finding, talked about in Part 1 of our mini-series). In this gem, Solomon Asch (mad scientist name if I ever heard one) gathered eight people in a room. One of which was a participant, and unbeknownst to this poor fellow the other seven were confederates (Asch's buddies, along for the ride) pretending to be participants.

Asch would show these people slides like the one pictured to the left. He would then ask the 'participants' which of the labelled lines (a, b, or c) was the closest to the image on the left. Or he would just ask which was longest or shortest. Questions of this nature. Now, the first two times everything went along dandily. Everyone was in agreement about the questions. But the third time, Asch had his buddies lie and say give an obviously wrong answer. Each group went through 18 slides and of these 18 slides, in 12 the confederates unanimously gave the wrong answer. Now it's important to know that one was asked to answer these questions out loud. See, Asch wanted to see if the actual participant would think he was going crazy and change his answer to conform (now it all makes sense, no?). So how did we go? Were the majority of people strong enough to go 'heck no, that's ridiculous, you're all clearly blind' (which is likely how they felt - seriously, look up some of the slides). Of course, I wouldn't be writing this if the answer was yes. In those 12 'critical trials', that is the 12 trials that Asch's buddies answered wrong in, about one-third of responses went along with the incorrect answer. About three-quarters of participants answered at least one question wrong during the experiment. When Asch measured participants in a one-on-one (i.e. no tricky confederates), the error rate was less than 1%. One mistake in a hundred over one mistake in 12 is a pretty hefty difference.

And to think you used to think conformity was cute. Photo courtesy of Fanny Jarnet (Flickr) And to think you used to think conformity was cute. Photo courtesy of Fanny Jarnet (Flickr)

Asch interviewed his legitimate participants to find out just what they were thinking and he found a few categories of people. Firstly, there were the guys who went against the grain or 'independent' as Asch called it. In this group there were those:

  1. with 'doubt' - ones who were quite worried and stressed by the apparent discrepancy but stuck to their guns anyway
  2. with 'confidence' - ones who were a little concerned by the discrepancy but were otherwise pretty happy to conflict with the confederates
  3. and those who were 'withdrawn' - ones who apparently couldn't care less that the others didn't agree

The other group was comprised of people who conformed more than half the time; the 'yielders'. These were also comprised of a few distinct subgroups, all of whom experienced some kind of 'distortion':

  1. those with a 'distortion of action' - knew the others were wrong but conformed so as not to seem inferior
  2. those with a 'distortion of judgement' - initially disagreed but after some significant doubt decided that their judgement was incorrect and the others must be right
  3. those with a 'distortion of perception' - didn't experience any doubt and just thought the others were right in every trial. It's important to note that these comprised only a very small number of the participant pool
It's easy (for some) to have confidence when you're alone. But knowing that a third of people aren't confident enough to speak their minds in a disagreement will hopefully push you to be confident when there's others around. Photo courtesy of S e t h (Flickr) It's easy (for some) to have confidence when you're alone. But knowing that a third of people aren't confident enough to speak their minds in a disagreement will hopefully push you to be confident when there's others around. Photo courtesy of S e t h (Flickr)

From this, Asch deduced that some people are capable of overcoming their doubt and acting with confidence to give the right answer, where as some people aren't able to muster that same confidence. Seems obvious right? Well you are right, but don't forget what we've said about hindsight bias. However, it's still pretty amazing to see the extent this is the case for something with so little at stake. Roughly a third of people are so swayed by others that they can mistrust their own senses to a pretty huge extent. Either that or they're willing to sacrifice their integrity for the size of a line. I don't know which is more terrifying. So I'll leave you with a question. The difference between the 'independents' and the 'yielders' is pretty slim and if it all comes down to confidence, how confident are you? Read our last article in the series? Read the next? If you're digging this mini-series, you probably want to do what everyone else is doing and Join Us. That's the only way you'll get updated as this mini-series continues. Otherwise, maybe you're only conforming because you aren't confident enough. In that case maybe you'd like the psychological skinny on how to make great first impressions? And perhaps to learn how you can use a smile to give you a boost? Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology. Thumbnail image courtesy of L B (Flickr)

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.