The Power Of Conformity: How To Actually Change A Persons Thoughts With Advertising
In the 1950′s, psychologist Solomon Asch performed a series of now famous experiments on social conformity. In the re-enactment video above, you can get a good idea of what they were about.
All of them involved a group of participants answering some very simple questions about their perception (for example: which line was longer than the other?, which lines were the same length?, etc.). All but one of those participants were “confederates”, meaning they were in on the experiment, and were asked to give the same incorrect answers. Asch wanted to see how the remaining subject would react to the rest of the participants behavior.
The results were startling: When they were surrounded by participants giving an incorrect answer, 75% of the subjects followed along and gave the same incorrect answer at least once, and 37% of the subjects followed along and gave an incorrect answer the majority of the time.
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 be an answer different from the majority.
The Scary Part:
The most frightening aspect of the experiment only came to light recently, in 2005. Dr. Gregory Berns from Emory University led a study where the researchers used an fMRI brain scan on the subjects in an experiment similar to the original Asch study. The results showed that, when individuals conform to a group’s opinion, even when the group is wrong, perceptual circuits in the brain light up. This suggests that groups actually change the way we see the world. Second, when an individual stands up against the group, they observed strong activation in the amygdala, the fear center of the brain. All this suggests that not only are our brains not wired for truly independent thought, but it takes a huge amount of effort to overcome the fear of standing up for one’s own beliefs and speaking out.
Humans are a social species, we’re built to function in a group. If everyone around us starts running, it makes sense for us to start running too, without putting much thought into it. This is the reason advertisers are so keen on giving the appearance of popularity. It’s why political ads have shots of cheering crowds, and car commercials say “best selling sedan of 2008″. It’s why our opinion of a politician changes when we think that a majority of people support him.
Dr. Berns brain scan study showed us that our actual perception can change solely based on the opinions of those around us. This is a frightening aspect of the human brain and, hopefully, one we can try to counter now that we are aware of it.