Bend me, shape me

Bend me, shape me - image for article by Greg Alder

I want to take you back to 1951. I want you to imagine you’re a student at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. You have been invited to participate in a study about perception. You and 7 other students are shown 2 cards. The first card has a single vertical line on it. The second card has 3.

The test is simple. You are asked to identify which of the 3 lines on the second card is the same length as the line on the first card.

Perception test

The answer is obvious. At least, it’s obvious to you. But for some reason, the first of the 7 students to answer claims it’s line B. So does the second student. You can’t believe that they’d think line B was the same length as the line on the first card.

You study the lines closely as each student nominates line B. You wonder if you might have misunderstood the question – even though you’re confident you haven’t.

As each successive student emphatically nominates B, your doubts increase. Now, when your turn comes to answer, you also nominate line B – against your better judgement.

What you don’t know is that this isn’t a test of perception. The real idea behind it is to test resistance to conformity. The other 7 participants aren’t students. They are actors instructed to nominate line B.

The pressure to conform forced you to give the same answer as the rest of the group.

You’re not alone in bowing to this pressure. The test’s designer, Solomon Asch, found that 37% of people also bowed to peer pressure and nominated the wrong answer.

This test took place in a society that values individualism. In conformity tests elsewhere, the pressure to conform has been found to be even stronger. In Japan, 50% of people succumb to the pressure to conform. There’s no report of conformity tests from North Korea, but it’d be safe to bet that conformity would be close to 100%. Resistance would be unwise.

Even in free countries, we are subjected to pressure to conform our whole lives. Our parents are told what to expect of their baby and they are told how to care for their baby. If, as babies, we don’t behave as expected, we’re treated for abnormalities until we fall within the borders of acceptable baby behaviour.

We (mostly) wear uniforms when we go to school. We’re taught school rules. If we break them, we’re punished.

We’re taught the rules of grammar, physics, mathematics and sport. If we break those rules, we’re given an F or a red card.

We learn what’s expected of us on the dating scene – the behavior that’s acceptable, the questions we mustn’t ask.

We learn the rules of driving a car, of being a good citizen, a good employee. We learn to drive in marked lanes. We learn what days we must put the bins out for collection. We learn the procedure for requisitioning a new pen from Stationery.

We take someone as our lawfully wedded partner. We have babies. We’re told what to expect of our baby – and so the whole cycle starts again.

Conformity makes for easy governing. Law-abiding citizens mightn’t like what their elected representatives do, but they’ve been programmed to bide their peace and passively accept whatever is sent their way.

However, conformity kills experimentation, creativity and innovation. And these are the foundations of human development and personal happiness.

Our brains don’t come preloaded. They’re sponges ready to absorb new experiences, test unexplored possibilities and combine ideas in original ways.

Most of us have rebelled at some time. We were quickly brought back into line. Knowing when to accept conformity and when to reject it can make all the difference between a life that’s challenging, rewarding, exciting and valuable and one that’s spent in meek pedestrian existence.

I can’t imagine why you’d choose the latter. Can you?

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