The last way we must struggle to keep an open mind and clarity of thought is concerning our social influences. The people around us can determine what we think and do, no matter how hard we try. This was proved in the Asch Conformity Test and the Milgram Shock Experiment. It doesn’t matter how open-minded you are; your environment can push you strongly in one way despite your best intentions.
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If we can characterize confirmation bias and following the evidence as something internal that you must battle to stay clear and open-minded, then the social influence is something external that we must battle. In other words, we must resist the influence of others and draw our own conclusions rather than parroting those of others or being overly dependent on them.
None of us prefer to think of ourselves in this way—essentially a follower. We all like to imagine that we have free will and are actively making our decisions and determining out own thoughts instead of the other way around. If you’re not a follower, that means you’re a leader.
Leaders blaze the trail and set the path instead of the other way around. They are strong-minded and are driven by a set of morals and convictions. Above all else, they alone determine their thoughts. The truth, however, is a bit uglier. What we might define as free will daily is just us being influenced in subtle and subconscious manners by other people and the settings we find ourselves in.
Here’s a simple example.
If you walk into your new job and you find everyone wearing magenta shirts, you are probably going to find a magenta shirt as soon as you can for the next day, even though there is no dress code, and no one has ever mentioned anything about magenta shirts. Something in your mind will tell you that you should be wearing a magenta shirt, even though there are no rules about it and the people you’ve asked haven’t mentioned it either. You might even feel uncomfortable if you don’t buy one within the week.
We are heavily influenced by the people around us and the contexts we find ourselves in, to such a degree that free will is more accurately categorized as just another decision that depends on what we see and feel from others. Two infamous, landmark studies show just how much we are swayed by others and left closed-minded.
The Asch Conformity Experiment is the first study that digs deep into the concept of dubious free will. This study was conducted by Solomon Asch of Swarthmore College in the 1950s and broadly demonstrated the compulsion to conform and “fit in” despite our best instincts and interests.
The study was relatively simple and asked participants to conduct a vision test. There was only one subject in each run of the study, and the rest of the people present were Asch’s confederates. They would attempt to influence the true participant to conform and act against their free will.
The participant sat around a table with seven confederates and was asked two questions:
Which line was the longest in Exhibit 2?
Which line from Exhibit 2 matches the line from Exhibit 1?
Below is what the participants saw and made their judgment on. When participants were asked this question alone, through writing, or without confederates who would provide a range of answers, they consistently answered in the same way: Obviously, Line C and Line A, respectively.
However, when confederates were present and provided incorrect answers, what followed was surprising.
When the true participant was surrounded by confederates who gave incorrect answers, such as stating that Line C was equal to Exhibit 1, or Line B was the longest in Exhibit 2, they also conformed their answers to be stunningly incorrect based on the social pressures of those around them. Over one-third of the true participants gave an obviously wrong answer, presumably because of the influence of peer pressure and the general feeling of, “What could I be missing that everyone else is seeing?” This feeling of confusion and wanting to avoid appearing stupid can cause someone to conform to something obviously wrong, which will make them appear stupid because they were trying to avoid that very thing. Asch successfully displayed that people, whether they believe it or not, wish to blend in with their peers and their environment, so they don’t stick out.
People don’t want to commit a faux pas, so even if they thought the line was truly the same length or not, they made it seem like they did. Asch commented, “The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black.”
After the experiment, he had the opportunity to ask participants whether they actually believed their altered stances, and most did not and simply wanted to go along with the group because they did not want to be thought of as “peculiar.” Others thought the group’s judgment was correct and felt their new answer was correct as well.
These two approaches represent the two main reasons people appeared to conform and act against their free will. First, they wanted to be liked by the group and not seen as a “peculiar” outsider—a normative influence. They wanted to fit in and be seen as comparable to the group. Second, they conformed because they thought their information was faulty, and they wanted to use the group’s judgment instead of their own. This is called an informational influence, where they doubted their own instincts and assumed others had more and better information than they did.
In either case, people’s clarity of thought is subverted by emotional reactions (discomfort, anxiety) to what other people are doing. You can say that you chose to go along with other people’s answers consciously, but in fact, it wasn’t what you truly wanted to do.
This is how we end up wearing magenta shirts far more often than we think we should. You might start with buying only one, but by the end of a year, you’ll probably have a closet full of magenta shirts just because it seems like the right thing to do to fit in. You want acceptance from the group not to appear “peculiar,” and you feel there’s a reason magenta is so prevalent, one you don’t quite know yet.
We take cues on how to behave and think from other people, especially if it’s an unfamiliar situation. For instance, if you show up at a fancy ball, you would look to how other people bow, stand, and interact so you can calibrate your own behavior. Where this takes a deviation into clarity of thought is where you go directly against what you know to be true just to conform. Asch’s experiment was one instance where a correct answer was passed over, showing the true power of peer pressure and social influence.
Stanley Milgram’s famous electrical shock experiment chronicled in his 1963 paper Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View is one of the most important and famous psychological experiments ever conducted. And for our purposes, it demonstrates how we are slaves to authority and generally don’t act in a way we want when ordered to do something under the guise of duty. In more recent times, remembering the conclusions of Milgram’s experiment can explain how atrocities as unthinkable as torture of prisoners of war have happened, or even how genocide was allowed to rise to prominence during World War II.
People aren’t inherently evil and don’t necessarily use their free will to inflict such harm. Instead, Milgram showed us another explanation for why people act in atrocious ways while remaining very human at heart. It can serve as a general lesson on why people capable or who have done dark things aren’t different from you or me.
Milgram began his research at Yale University in the 1960s with the initial impetus of studying the psychology of genocide. He began to theorize that people weren’t necessarily evil, twisted, or even different from those who didn’t commit genocide, but that it was rather a reflection of authority, orders, and the perception of a lack of accountability. In other words, if you were just being told what to do and you were conditioned to follow orders without question, there was a pretty good chance you were going to be able to do anything.
After all, that is why soldiers go through boot camp and are berated endlessly by drill instructors—it is a process designed to promote obedience and conformity, even in the worst conditions that combat will present.
However, Milgram’s experiment showed it wasn’t only trained soldiers who could fall victim to such blind obedience and have their free will taken away from them. Milgram built a “shock machine” that looked like a device that would be used to dole out torture, but in reality, it did nothing and was mostly a series of lights and dials. This would be his tool for exposing human nature.
His experiment worked on the premise that the participant was administering a memory test to someone in another room, and if the unseen person made a mistake on the test, the participant was instructed by a man in a lab coat to punish them with electric shocks stemming from the “shock machine.” The shocks would escalate in intensity based on how many wrong answers were given. Before starting the experiment, the participant was given a 45-volt electric shock that was attached to the shock machine. 45 volts was where the shocks would begin and then increase in 15-volt increments with each mistake. The shock machine ranged up to 450 volts, which also had a warning label reading “Danger: Severe Shock” next to them, and the final two switches were also labeled “XXX.”
The unseen test-taker followed a script of getting the vast majority of the questions incorrect. As the participant administered shocks, goaded on and encouraged by the man in the white lab coat, the actor would cry out loudly and begin to express pain and anguish, begging them to stop and eventually falling completely silent.
Despite this, pushed on by the man in the white lab coat, a full 62% of participants administered the electrical shocks up to the highest level, which included the “XXX” and “Danger” levels. Milgram only allowed the man in the white lab coat to encourage with neutral and relatively benign statements such as “Please continue” and “It is essential that you continue.”
In other words, the participants weren’t coerced within an inch of their life to, in their perception, shock someone to unconsciousness or death! 62% reached the 450-volt limit, and none of the subjects stopped before reaching 300 volts. At 315 volts, the unseen actors went silent. The participants weren’t being forced to do this; neither were they yelled at or threatened. How could these results have occurred?
Are people just callous, with little regard for human life and suffering outside of their own? That can’t be true. What’s more likely to be true is how persuasive the perception of authority can be in subverting our free will. We will act against our wishes if we sense that we are being ordered to by someone who has power over us, no matter how arbitrary.
This obedience to authority and sense of deference can even push us to electrocute an innocent person to implied death. Suddenly, things such as genocide, the Holocaust, and torturing prisoners of war don’t seem so far-fetched. We like to think we have hard limits on what we could inflict on others, but the results of Milgram’s experiments showed otherwise—our free will can be completely bypassed because of a simple display of authority.
Milgram noted other factors might be the feeling that because there was an authority figure, they would hold no accountability and be able to say, “Well, he told me to!” When the participants were reminded they held responsibility for their actions, almost none of them wanted to continue participating in the experiment. Many even refused to continue if the man in the white lab coat didn’t take explicit responsibility. Additionally, it was an unseen victim they had never met before, so a degree of separation and dehumanization allowed actions to go further.
In the end, a normal person was shown to have followed orders given by another ordinary person in a white lab coat with a semblance of authority, which culminated in killing another person. It was quite the discovery in terms of what drives and motivates people. It was powerful evidence that clarity of thought is subject to all manners of delusion and influence.
These experiments prove the simple fact that who we think we are doesn’t matter. We can have the clearest of thoughts, which also doesn’t matter. What matters more in determining how we think and act are our surroundings, contacts, and the unique set of pressures that come with each context. Being open-minded means considering all sides, not deciding based solely on someone else’s influence.
Let’s tie this all back to autonomous, free and independent thought. If you hope to be a truly independent thinker, you will need to learn how to go against the grain. This may mean learning to recognize and push against your tendency towards confirmation bias, or it may mean deliberately going against public opinion, peer pressure and social influence. Some of the world’s finest thinkers have encountered unthinkable levels of stubbornness, resistance and pushback from those who value ease and conformity about truth and clarity. Seek independent thought, and you may find yourself coming face to face with this pressure yourself!
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