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Conformity has been studied by psychologists for almost a century. In this video, I will show you two pioneering studies in this field, as well as a recent neurological study which offers surprising suggestions about how much the opinions of others can affect us. I will finish up with some personal observations, and a proposition. In his 1935 study on social influence, Sherif used a phenomenon called the "autokinetic effect"; a still point of light in a darkened room appears to be in motion. This happens because our eyes are always making involuntary movements. In a well-lit room with clear points of reference, our brains compensate for these involuntary movements, so everything seems to remain still. But in a darkened room, the brain has no reference point to tell it whether our eyes are moving, or the point of life. Sherif asked individuals to estimate how much the point of light was moving. When he asked them individually, the range of answers was very wide. Some almost always answered that the light moved about 15cm. Others said that it didn't move at all. But when he did so in groups, the answers converged onto an average distance. The participants rejected the idea that the group was influencing them, but on returning to the individual tests, they responded in keeping with the group's answer. Sherif's experiment was criticised for using an ambiguous task; without knowing for certain how much the light was moving, it was easy to change one's mind. But what would happen if the test was not ambiguous? In the 50s, Asch answered this question using very specific stimuli. He gathered groups of between 7 and 9 university students in a class, for an experiment supposedly related to vision. Then he gave them cards like this one. One by one, each student had to identify which line was the same as that on the left. The trick was that all but one of the participants were Asch's accomplices, whom he had secretly told to give the wrong answer for 12 of the 18 cards, starting from the third pair. Asch tested 122 people. Under normal circumstances, the subjects answered incorrectly less than 1% of the time. With the social pressure of the accomplices, incorrect answers rose to 37%, with 74% of subjects agreeing with the majority in at least one of the critical tests. The subjects did not always immediately conform; some started by defying the group in the first two rounds, but hesitated more each time and becoming quieter, until they agreed with the rest. Asch said the conformity could be explained by distortions on one of three levels: perception, judgement and action. In Action, the subjects believe that the majority are wrong but still accept their answer. In Judgement, the subjects notice the conflict but reject their own opinion, concluding that the majority are correct. In Perception, the responses of the majority really distort their perception. A recent neurological study by Berns et al. investigated these three explanations, using magnetic resonance images to see the cerebral activity involved in this phenomenon. 32 subjects were tested, and in this case the task was to mentally rotate two 3D objects, to decide whether or not they matched. As in Asch's experiments, the rest of the group were accomplices who had to give predetermined correct or incorrect answers. Similarly to Asch's findings, the subjects agreed with the majority in 41% of cases. But, of course, the greater aim of this experiment was to see which parts of the brain were associated with this conformity. If conformity was occuring in perception, activity should be visible in the occipital and parietal lobes, used for visual perception. If it was happening during judgement and action, we would see it in other areas, such as the orbitofrontal cortex, used in decision-making. The MRI scanners showed activity in the occipital-parietal network, supporting the perception-based explanation. If it is true that the participant's subjects were really distorted, it means that public opinion could be able to affect an individual's information processing on a very deep level. It could be said that it is not possible to generalise these findings to those based on Asch's subjects. It could be said that there is a considerable difference in difficulty between the two tasks. With the rotation task, it is normal that the subjects depend on others' judgements. To check that the same cerebral processes are used in Asch's tasks, the subjects should just be tested with his line-based task. And although the perception-based explanation is supported, we know that the other two processes exist. Everyone has moments in which they have followed the majority despite ourselves. Many human mechanisms can help us, or work against us. Our pattern-following behaviour has lead to all sorts of scientific advancements, whenever we correctly identify patterns within nature. They have also lead to all sorts of irrational superstitions, when we imagine patterns of relationships which have no basis in reality. Of course, conformity can also have its advantages. It can provide useful structure to our social life, provide predictability, and help us to maintain many social conventions, such as queuing, without having to constantly go through the hassle of arguing and renegotiating. But it starts to work against us when we allow public opinion to tyrannize us, in environments in which public opinion should simply not be taken account of. We could end up greatly distorting our true selves for no reason. Autonomy, desires and personal preferences which don't affect anyone else and valid objections to important topics. My argument is that we are depriving ourselves of much more than we think. The pressure to confirm is piercing and merciless. We usually feel freed when we separate ourselves from a majority with which we did not identify, just because of social pressures to conform. We form minority communities which seem to represent freedom from majority groups. Soon, we find that within these minority communities the same pressures to conform arise. In a 2007 study on how we calculate public opinion, Weaver et al. discovered that hearing an opinion three times from the same group member has almost the same effect as hearing the same opinion from three different people within the group. Weaver argues that we calculate the popularity of an opinion by how familiar it seems to us; by how many times we have heard it. And unfortunately, our brains do not always distinguish by an opinion expressed by many and an opinion that has merely been repeated by a few. Conforming can be counterproductive. Let's say that there is a group of people with opinion "x". Without the group knowing, half of them secretly disagree, but due to the social punishments carried out on those who have expressed disagreement, they remain silent. By conforming, we increase the numbers of a group to which we do not really belong, and we perpetuate the idea of a majority which does not really exist. Imagine how the social situation would change if no one conformed like this. The simple fact of knowing about Asch's experiments makes us less susceptible to similar experiments. The more conscious we are of how easily we conform in any environment, the better we can defend ourselves. It is easier to be skeptical of groups to which we do not or do not yet belong, but conformity really occurs in the groups with which we identify. To achieve the support and acceptance we look for in these groups, we can find ourselves giving more than we receive. Being part of a group does not mean agreeing with every part of that group; we should always be able to legitimately criticise any group, be it our family, friends, social interest group or anything else. If we cannot do so, we give these groups a status and authority which they do not deserve, and which in reality they do not have. If a group cannot deal with legitimate disagreements, it is not one to which I want to belong. "Thinking" is the first step, "doing" is the next. Some spend years reading self-help books, realising profound things, epiphanies, discoveries... within their own heads, and usually despair upon realising that, with all this knowledge, their life does not seem to be changing. It doesn't change because, despite their ideas, they do not change their behaviour. Knowledge is important, but behaviour is just as crucial. Berns' study showed that the participants who disagreed with the group showed activity similar to emotional excitation. Standing out seems dangerous, but, like almost everything, gets easier every time. I believe that pushing ourselves, stretching ourselves, is important in our lives. If we don't expect much from ourselves, we can stagnate. But our expectations should be realistic; our own expectations and those which other people have for us. The truth is that disappointing people can be very humanising; it can give the disappointed the opportunity to realise that their demands might not be reasonable. I suggest considering some of the things we hide in order to conform. Preferences, activities, beliefs, physical characteristics which do not bother anyone, but for some reason we give in to a supposed consensus that they are not acceptable. What sort of fears lie beneath these conformities? Are they rational fears? You don't like dancing? Don't dance. The ideas, the books and the people which inspire me are those which celebrate diversity, individualism and authenticity. Without a doubt, no one who urges group conformity has ever inspired me, no one who has tried to bring about fear or who has tried to contort my comfort zone; people who show this sort of fallacious stupidity. What about you? I say you should question these things. Qustion the group. And we will get closer to being our true selves.

Video Details

Duration: 9 minutes and 53 seconds
Country: Spain
Language: Spanish (Spain)
Producer: TheraminTrees
Director: TheraminTrees
Views: 196
Posted by: lukanieto on Oct 25, 2010

Vídeo sobre la conformidad de un usuario de Youtube apodado "TheraminTrees".

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