My Thoughts about Social Conformity (Part 1)

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Zhou Zheng

[] Recently I heard a Chinese idiom, which says "If enough people say it, something becomes as solid as gold." I didn't give much thought to it until lately I came across a few articles, and started to realize the deep meaning of this idiom.

I. The New York Times carries article about Social Conformity

The New York Times carried an article on June 28, 2005 about studies of social conformity. [1] The article mentioned a topic that psychologists have puzzled over for more than half a century: social conformity. As early as 1950s, Social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a famous experiment. In this experiment, test subjects see two cards, one has a vertical line and the other has three vertical lines, one of which was the same length as the one on the first card. Then, the test subjects were asked which line from the second card two had the same length as the line on the fist card. It is such a simple question that even a five-year-old could answer correctly.

In the experiment, Dr. Asch arranged for seven other individuals to answer this question before the test subjects did, and those people deliberately gave a wrong answer from time to time. Even after thinking it over and over, in total, about one third of the subjects who were placed in this situation went along with the clearly erroneous majority.

Dr. Asch died in 1996. Before he died, he still wasn't sure whether the test subjects who gave the wrong answer knew the answer was wrong but gave it anyway, or was it that social pressure changed a person's ability to judge right from wrong?

The June 2005 edition of Biol Psychiatry published a paper titled "Neurobiological correlates of social conformity and independence during mental rotation." The lead author of the study is Dr. Gregory Berns, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University. Dr. Berns and his team of researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure what happens inside the brain when people either conform to a group's judgment, or go against it. The results of the study showed evidence that when people conform to a group's judgment and the group is wrong, changes in brain activity of the test subjects are noted in the visual and perceptual parts of the brain. The scans showed that the part of the brain that is normally activated during conscious decision-making was not activated. This suggests that groups have the capacity to influence our perceptions of the world.

Dr Berns said, "We like to think that seeing is believing. But the study's findings show that seeing is believing what the group tells you to believe." Commenting on the story, Dr. Dan Ariely from MIT said, "It suggests that information from other people may color our perception at a very deep level."

II. Science and Truth

Social conformity affects people's pursuit of the truth.

According to a study on the history of science, in measuring physical constants, sometimes the deviation between the real value and the first measured value was very big. The next reported value was closer to the real value but still close to the first measured value. So after a series of such reports, the measured value slowly moved closer and closer to the real value.

Excluding technical reasons, the most possible explanation to this phenomenon is, after earlier data was published, if later researchers found a big deviation between the new data and the published data, even though the new data might be very close to the real value, most of them would suspect that their improper methods had caused this big gap. Therefore, in order to have it published and avoid from being laughed at by peers, they would release the data that is close to the earlier publication.

However, the real value is real after all. Therefore, publication after publication, the data would come toward the real value little by little.

This phenomenon is very enlightening. From ancient times to present, so many people have been talking about pursuing the truth. However, when truth emerges, does one have the courage to admit it? Or would that person behave like Lord Ye and run away? (Translator's note: there is a Chinese idiom called "Lord Ye's Love of Dragons." According to the idiom, Lord Ye had a strong love for dragons. His house was covered in dragons, including on his weapons, bed linen, furniture and walls. On hearing about Ye's passion for dragons, a celestial dragon decided to honor Ye by paying him a visit. Dark clouds, lightning and thunder accompanied the dragon's descent to earth. The earth shook and a heavy downpour came down. Lord Ye was so frightened by the dragon's visit that he ran away as fast as he could).

From a different angle, ancient Chinese people have said, "A small recluse finds seclusion in the remote country, but a big recluse finds seclusion amidst the urban hustle." The truth that people have been pursuing all along might be right next to us. But it requires us to seek for the truth carefully and have the courage to acknowledge it when we finally find it.


1. What Other People Say May Change What You See

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