Anyone who’s taken a course in social psychology will be familiar with Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments.
In the most famous version (see here), each participant is invited into a room with several other people who are posing as fellow participants but are actually actors. An experimenter shows the “participants” a series of boards with lines of different length on them. After each board has been shown, the “participants” are asked which line on the right-hand side is equal to the line on the left-hand side (a trivial task).
The “participants” answer in turn, with the real participant answering last. Unbeknownst to him, the actors have all been told to give the wrong answer. The experimenter records whether the real participant also gives the wrong answer. Asch found that about one third of participants did so.
Unlike many findings in social psychology, Asch’s has been replicated several times by other researchers – attesting to the power of social conformity.
In a new study, Mariola Paruzel-Czachura and colleagues applied Asch’s paradigm to online interactions, specifically video calls. And rather than asking about the lengths of lines, they presented moral dilemmas.
The researchers’ experimental design is shown in the image below.
There were two conditions: experimental and control. In the former, each participant joined a video call with four actors posing as fellow participants. In the latter, each participant joined the video call alone.
Participants in the experimental condition were given 12 moral dilemmas, four of which were ‘fillers’. In these cases, the actors gave mixed answers, or all gave the ‘right’ answer. They were included to make sure participants in the experimental condition didn’t cotton on to the purpose of the study.
At this point, you might be wondering, “How can there be a ‘right’ answer to a moral dilemma?” By ‘right’ answer, the researchers just meant the one that is typically given – since the moral dilemmas had been used in previous research. Here’s an example:
The ‘right’ (i.e., typical) answer is ‘yes’, but all the actors were told to answer ‘no’.
Conformity was measured as the percentage of participants in the experimental condition who gave the ‘wrong’ answer minus the percentage in the experimental condition who did so.
Paruzel-Czachura and colleagues found significant conformity effects for half of the eight experimental dilemmas (and the other half showed non-significant effects in the expected direction). On average, there was a 14 percentage point difference between the experimental and control conditions.
As the researchers note, their findings are relevant to the age of lockdown – during which video calls replaced face-to-face interaction for much of the population. One might expect that this mode of communication would reduce or eliminate social conformity, but that appears not to be the case.