The Asch effect: when being in a group can lead to bad decisions

Jan 15, 2021

6 mins

The Asch effect: when being in a group can lead to bad decisions
Coline de Silans

Journaliste indépendante

If you have ever gone along with the majority when you didn’t agree at all, worked overtime just because all your colleagues stayed late, or kept a brilliant idea to yourself out of fear that everyone would think you were weird, then you have experienced the Asch effect. This bias, studied by the American psychologist Solomon Asch in the 1950s, demonstrates the influence that groups can have when it comes to making an individual decision. In the age of social networks, when it isn’t easy to go against the majority, it’s clear that this phenomenon is becoming more and more prevalent at work and elsewhere.

A matter of size

It all began in the aftermath of the Second World War when the atrocities the Nazi regime had committed came to light. Researchers and psychologists wondered how so many people could have been part of a system that inflicted such abuses. So they began to investigate the subject. Among them was Solomon Asch, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. To study the mechanisms of consent and adherence, he invited a group of students to take a so-called “visual perception test”. The exercise is very simple: on the left, a line is drawn on a panel. On the right, there are three lines, one of which is the same size as the one on the left. Each student must then in turn identify out loud which of the three lines is the same length as the one on the left. On the surface, there is nothing unusual about this, especially since the three lines are so different in size that the answer is obvious.

Except that in each group interviewed, only one participant was in fact a “guinea pig”: all the others were actors complicit in the study. The experiment was conducted 18 times in a row for each group, and 12 times out of the 18, the actors all voluntarily gave a wrong answer. When it came to the “guinea pig”s turn, which was always second to last, they agreed with the majority opinion in more than 70% of cases, even though the answers the other subjects had given were wrong.

A variety of justifications

To justify their erroneous decisions, the test subjects generally gave three main reasons:

  • A lack of self-confidence
  • Fear of not being “normal”
  • Believing that the answer the others gave was the right one.

In the first case, Asch speaks about a “distortion of judgment”. The subjects have convinced themselves that if everyone has given an answer that is different from theirs, they must be wrong. Of course, this phenomenon more strongly affects individuals who suffer from low self-confidence, who will then more easily doubt the reliability of their own judgment.

Another reason for the test subjects to give incorrect answers may be fear of rejection by the group: individuals knew that the majority was wrong, but preferred to conform rather than be excluded. Asch thus speaks of “distortion of action”. This fear, legitimate as it is, has its origin in a primitive survival reflex: in the wild, being part of the group is what guarantees survival. Belonging to a group makes it possible to hunt in a pack and therefore multiply your chances of finding food, protecting each other from predators, and perpetuating the species. And even though nowadays there’s no need to rely on our peers to help us to hunt buffalo, the fear of being socially excluded is sometimes strong enough to influence the decisions of an individual, who then prefers to conform rather than take the risk of being left out.

The last case is what Asch calls “distortion of perception”. The influence of the group is such that it modifies the perception of the individual, who is then persuaded that the group is right. This distortion can even be observed inside the brain. In 2005, neurobiology researchers at the University of Georgia Medical School conducted a study in which they observed the brains of participants under MRI when they were given wrong information. It appears that when the information is supported by the majority, and the individual is therefore subject to a certain social pressure, their brain ends up conforming with those of the others, and actually ends up perceiving the situation as everyone else does.

What about at work?

In the workplace, the Asch effect can result in seemingly harmless behaviors, which can have negative repercussions. This is what happens when you decide to keep your opinions to yourself in a meeting but, a few minutes later, someone else speaks up and says what you were thinking, getting the credit (or even a promotion) in your place. Worse still is the situation where you find yourself forced to set up procedures or approve decisions that you don’t agree with, just because you didn’t speak out against them when there was still time.

When the dissonance between actions at work and personal convictions becomes too great, it creates a certain uneasiness that can lead to burnout if not managed well. In the same way, doing overtime to conform to a company’s culture can ultimately be harmful to your work-life balance and also lead to burnout. Adopting the majority viewpoint can be legitimate, but when you are at work this attitude can quickly become problematic and lead to decisions you don’t agree with––with you being the first to suffer.

However, there are some cases where group pressure eases up. After conducting his first experiment, Asch continued his research by varying the criteria and obtained some interesting results. Firstly, the size of the group can influence the decision-making process: for example, a single individual against a few people will have less difficulty voicing their opposition than a single individual against “everyone”. On top of that, if one or two people give the same answer, the pressure of the majority is lessened, and the individual is able to break apart from the group. Depending on the context, social pressure can therefore be felt to a greater or a lesser extent. Fortunately, even if all your colleagues disagree with you or you find yourself in the minority, there are a few tricks you can use to stay the course.

How do you avoid the Asch effect at work (but also in life)?

To overcome this subtle effect, here are a few very simple techniques.

1. Ask yourself questions

Whether you’re in a meeting or in the break room, practice having doubts. Why do we do this? Is it really the best solution? Will the company really perform better this way? Isn’t there another, more creative way to meet this client’s objectives? Has it really been verified that this process works? Questioning what the group may present as an obvious choice will allow you to take a step back, develop your critical thinking skills, and ultimately not blindly adhere to decisions you are not sure you agree with.

2. Get out of sync

This is a somewhat complex way to phrase a simple tip: in a meeting, step out of the normal pattern of behavior by positioning yourself behind the group. In other words, move your chair back a little as if everyone were glued to the table, move around the room if possible, change positions, these simple gestures will allow you to detach yourself physically from the group and, as incredible as it may seem, to detach yourself psychologically as well. Strangely enough, giving an opinion contrary to that of the group will then seem much easier.

3. Offer alternatives

Opposing others just for the pleasure of showing your disapproval is generally not considered constructive, especially at work. To get your opinion across gently, generate debate but above all, propose alternatives to the group’s decisions. Do you disagree with the way this call for tenders should be answered? Say so, but above all, explain what you are considering instead. The idea is for the debate to be constructive and for it to create a new group dynamic, not to turn your meeting into a brawl.

4. Be confident in yourself

Last but not least, don’t be intimidated by the opinion of the majority. Just because “everyone thinks that” doesn’t mean it’s the right way to think. Daring to oppose others is daring to assert your way of thinking, and it will be all the easier for you if you convince yourself that your opinion is worth listening to. Tell yourself that there may be others who think like you and that they’re waiting for you to have the courage to express their opinion. Even if the group doesn’t agree with you, that’s okay, too. At least you’ll have had the satisfaction of sharing your opinion, and if it’s not accepted, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth listening to.

The Asch effect is subtle, meaning that it comes into play in many decision-making processes, and exerts its influence differently on different individuals. People who are more assertive will naturally be less likely to go along with the majority than others who are less assertive. In the age of social media and cancel culture, going against the majority can be all the more difficult as social pressure can be severe. However, when you feel that you are agreeing to a decision you’re not comfortable with, you should ask yourself why you are reacting this way. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to realize that the price of speaking up is much lower than the price of putting up with a decision you don’t respect.

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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