Elevator Groupthink: An Ingenious 1962 Psychology Experiment in Conformity
What vintage Candid Camera can teach us about the cultural role of the global Occupy movement.
By Maria Popova
The psychology of conformity is something we’ve previously explored, but its study dates back to the 1950s, when Gestalt scholar and social psychology pioneer Solomon Asch, known today as the Asch conformity experiments. Among them is this famous elevator experiment, originally conducted as a part of a 1962 Candid Camera episode titled “Face the Rear.”
But, while amusing in its tragicomic divulgence of our capacity for groupthink, this experiment tells only half the story of Asch’s work. As James Surowiecki reminds us in the excellent The Wisdom of Crowds, Asch went on to reveal something equally important — that while people slip into conformity with striking ease, it also doesn’t take much to get them to snap out of it. Asch demonstrated this in a series of experiments, planting a confederate to defy the crowd by engaging in the sensible, rather than nonsensical, behavior. That, it turned out, was just enough. Having just one peer contravene the group made subjects eager to express their true thoughts. Surowiecki concludes:
Ultimately, diversity contributes not just by adding different perspectives to the group but also by making it easier for individuals to say what they really think. […] Independence of opinion is both a crucial ingredient in collectively wise decisions and one of the hardest things to keep intact. Because diversity helps preserve that independence, it’s hard to have a collectively wise group without it.”
Perhaps the role of the global Occupy movement and other expressions of contemporary civic activism is that of a cultural confederate, spurring others — citizens, politicians, CEOs — to face the front of the elevator at last.
Complement with How To Be a Nonconformist, a satirical masterpiece from the same era, written and illustrated by a teenage girl.
Published January 13, 2012