Breaking Conformity

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January 10, 2007

By far the most famous psychology experiment of all time is Milgram's demonstration of obedience to authority. As we all know, his subjects were willing to administer (what they took to be) lethal shocks to (imaginary) victims simply because a guy in a white coat told them to. I've always wondered if perhaps some of the motivation was the ability to inflict such cruelty and have it be 'OK,' since after all 'The doctor told me to!' But I digress. Even though Milgram's is the most famous, it's not my favorite. No, my favorite psychology experiment is Asch's on conformity. Here, in the typical setup Asch would have a vertical line drawn on one card and three other lines on a second card, and would ask the group of subjects (all within earshot of each other) questions about the relative lengths of the lines. The twist is that all but one of the subjects were actually confederates, who purposely gave incorrect answers. The point was to measure how much peer pressure (or more broadly, the desire to conform) would cause people to give obviously false answers. What's really interesting is that after the fact, the subjects would attribute their obvious mistakes to poor eyesight or some other personal failing. They didn't seem to realize that the wrong answers of everyone else in the group made it very uncomfortable to give what was clearly the right answer. And now we come to the most illuminating feature of Asch's results: Although as many as a third of the subjects would conform when all the confederates unanimously gave wrong answers, virtually every true subject would give the right answer so long as just one confederate dissented from the rest of the group by giving the right answer as well. In other words, people are willing to trust their inner judgment and speak what they know to be true, so long as they don't feel totally alone in those views. In homage to Asch's wonderful discovery, I now proceed to do my small part in dissenting from the other confederates in our society. Here are some basic truths that no arsenal of pseudo-intellectuals can deny: ' It's wrong to steal, and taxes are stealing. This one's pretty simple, folks. The government tells you to pay your taxes or else. Or else what? Or else, when push comes to shove, they send armed goons to your house to drag you away and throw you in a dungeon (or 'prison,' as the modern nomenclature would have it). If you think the services government gave you were worth the price, then the government doesn't need an IRS to collect payment. McDonald's doesn't have thousands of employees whose only job is to force people to fork over money in exchange for Super Value Meals. ' It's wrong to murder innocent people, and war is murder. Once again, pretty straightforward, folks. This is more black-and-white than the questions Asch asked his subjects. But in case there's confusion, let me change the wording to make it clearer, perhaps: Melting thousands of children in order to get somebody else to do what you want is evil. ' Majority vote doesn't turn something wrong into something right. A lot of people think that taxes, and all the murders performed by our brave boys and now girls (whom we're all supposed to 'support'), are rendered A-OK because the president orders them. And this in turn rests on the belief that our system is a good one, because it relies on the will of the majority. See, it's not really stealing if 'the people' approve of the tax code. Now this is just balderdash and everyone knows it, deep down inside. If tomorrow Bush stole a scene from Braveheart and ordered that every governor had the right to sleep with new brides, I don't think the existence of the Electoral College would reassure too many new husbands. It's true that the American public would never stand for such a ridiculous decree, and that's why Bush would never order it. My point here is simply that it's not the political process that makes such a hypothetical decree right or wrong; it's wrong by its very nature. The goal is to pick a political process that allows the right answer to occur as often as possible. And when I look at the history of governments throughout history, even our own, I'm not convinced we've found a good process. ' The US government can be just as corrupt and backward as any other. It always amuses me how Americans can be very wise and skeptical when it comes to other governments, but always give extremely generous explanations for apparently hideous actions that US politicians commit. Sorry folks, it doesn't work that way. When we invade a country because of alleged weapons of mass destruction, and then we stay even though the weapons don't turn up, then we've been an aggressor nation. Yup, we just took over another country on the basis of lies. When other countries do that, Americans cry foul. Still think the US is qualitatively better than all those nasty other regimes? Still think the American people are a cut above? Then how do you explain this? In 1963, the US had a military coup, in which the elected president was murdered and replaced by one of his subordinates. The ensuing cover-up was so palpably false that anyone who deigns to read up on the subject must realize the government has systematically lied to us all these decades. For those who would like a good starting point, I recommend Mark Lane's classic Rush to Judgment. If just one of his major points is true'for example, the APB on Oswald going out before the police could possibly have 'learned' the description'then the official Warren Commission report is a bunch of garbage. Use your common sense, folks. Your government lies to you every day. If just a few of us started pointing this out, everyone else would soon admit the obvious as well.

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Thomas Hoyt's picture
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Thomas Hoyt is a retired teacher who lives in Nashville, TN.