How Honest People Learn to Lie
Want to play a game? It’s an easy one. All you need to do is look at these three lines and identify the longest:
The longest one is C, right? Wait … you don’t see it? Look again. I’m sure it’s C. So are most of the people who are reading this post. If you think it’s something else, you must be mistaken.
If you’ve ever taken an entry-level psychology class, you might know where this is going … at least at first. The three lines come from a classic psychological experiment known as the Asch Conformity Study. In the original study, subjects were brought into what they were told was a “focus group.” In reality, every other member of the group was playing an assigned role. Only the subject was being monitored.
A researcher then presented a series of cards to the group. Each card had three lines on them, just like the ones shown above. The researcher would then go one-by-one through the group, asking each person to say out loud which line one that was longest. The real subject was usually the last person asked.
The experiment started off simple enough, with everyone giving the correct responses. But at a predetermined time, the group broke off, with everyone but the real subject insisting that one of the shorter lines was actually the longest.
This is where it gets interesting. How would the subject answer?
Some subjects held their ground and correctly identified the longest line, going against the consensus opinion, but not many. More often, they wavered, wondering at first if their eyes were misleading them. But then they had to answer, and many of them agreed with the rest of the group.
The study has been repeated with similar results. Over and over, a high percentage of subjects will go along with the collective opinion, despite the obvious visual evidence that points to another conclusion. They will look at the three lines, consider what everyone else has said, and repeat the incorrect answer that everyone else gave.
This brings us to the summary of how the experiment is usually presented: a group consensus is so powerful that individuals will believe what others say more than what they can clearly see for themselves.
But hold on … is that really the takeaway?
I’ll be honest: I always wondered whether this study was accurately reported. It’s a fascinating hypothesis, and there’s video footage that proves over and over that many subjects do indeed alter their responses based on the answers of the group.
Still, are so many people really that susceptible to the influence of their peers? Many classic studies that are frequently cited end up being debunked later, yet continued to be treated as gospel truth in various books and articles.
It turns out that the Asch Conformity Study is legit … but most of the time it’s recounted, the wrong conclusion is drawn. It’s not as though all of those subjects changed their mind under the influence of the group. In fact, most of the ones who conformed to the group’s flawed analysis didn’t actually believe the group was right.
In post-experiment interviews, it was revealed that the subjects who went along with the group usually knew they were providing false answers. They weren’t completely duped. But this leads to another question: why would so many people fail to report what they really saw?
The answer is that they didn’t want to go against the group’s unanimous opinion. “I knew it wasn’t the right answer, but I just didn’t want to cause an argument,” one subject said with a shrug. This was the power that was so powerful—not the ability to change someone’s perception (what they believed), but rather the ability to influence their behavior (what they did).
In other words, people were deliberately lying when they went along with the consensus of the group. It’s tough to go against the crowd!
Then the researchers wondered if there was anything they could do to get subjects to be more truthful. It turned out that there was. All that was needed was to introduce a couple of “allies” into the group—group members who would give the correct answers, in opposition to the majority who provided incorrect answers.
Introducing allies seemed to change everything. All of a sudden, most people would be willing to be in the minority. They just didn’t want to be totally alone. They didn’t want to be the only one.
There are a lot of lessons you can take from this story. One obvious one is that when something doesn’t seem quite right, maybe you’re on to something. Maybe other people notice it as well, but they’re afraid to speak up and go against a larger group opinion.
Another obvious lesson is “Maybe you can be an ally.” In these situations, maybe there’s someone, somewhere who doesn’t want to be the only truth-teller, or at least not the first. So that’s your job: to point out that the wisdom of the crowd is not always wise.
The consensus of the group is not always right, no matter how emphatically it is repeated. Be that truth-teller today. ❤️