Cross-Cultural maps and Asch's Conformity Experiment

by Sable4 min read9th Mar 201616 comments


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So I'm going through the sequences (in AI to Zombies) and I get to the bit about Asch's Conformity Experiment.


It's a good bit of writing, but I mostly pass by without thinking about it too much.  I've been taught about the experiment before, and while Eliezer's point of whether or not the subjects were behaving rationally is interesting, it kind of got swallowed up by his discussion of lonely dissent, which I thought was more engaging.


Later, after I'd passed the section on cult attractors and got into the section on letting go, a thought occurred to me, something I'd never actually thought before.


Eliezer notes:


Three-quarters of the subjects in Asch's experiment gave a "conforming" answer at least once.  A third of the subjects conformed more than half the time.


That answer is surprising.  It was surprising to me the first time I learned about the experiment, and I think it's surprising to just about everyone the first time they hear it.  Same thing with a lot of the psychology surrounding heuristics and biases, actually.  Forget the Inquisition - no one saw the Stanford Prison Experiment coming.


Here's the thought I had:  Why was that result so surprising to me?


I'm not an expert in history, but I know plenty of religious people.  I've learned about the USSR and China, about Nazi Germany and Jonestown.  I have plenty of available evidence of times where people went along with things they wouldn't have on their own.  And not all of them are negative.  I've gone to blood drives I probably wouldn't have if my friends weren't going as well.


When I thought about what my prediction would be, had I been asked what percentage of people I thought would dissent before being told, I think I would have guessed that more than 80% of subject would consistently dissent.  If not higher.


And yet that isn't what the experiment shows, and it isn't even what history shows.  For every dissenter in history, there have to be at least a few thousand conformers.  At least.  So why did I think dissent was the norm?


I notice that I am confused.


So I decide to think about it, and my brain immediately spits out: you're an American in an individualistic culture.  Hypothesis: you expect people to conform less because of the culture you live in/were raised in.  This begs the question: have their been cross-cultural studies done on Asch's Conformity Experiment?  Because if people in China conform more than people in America, then how much people conform probably has something to do with culture.


A little googling brings up a 1996 paper that does a meta-analysis on studies that repeated Asch's experiments, either with a different culture, or at a later date in time.  Their findings:


The results of this review can be summarized in three parts.

First, we investigated the impact of a number of potential moderator variables, focusing just on those studies conducted in the United States where we were able to investigate their relationship with conformity, free of any potential interactions with cultural variables. Consistent with previous research, conformity was significantly higher, (a) the larger the size of the majority, (b) the greater the proportion of female respondents, (c) when the majority did not consist of out-group members, and (d) the more ambiguous the stimulus. There was a nonsignificant tendency for conformity to be higher, the more consistent the majority. There was also an unexpected interaction effect: Conformity was higher in the Asch (1952b, 1956) paradigm (as was expected), but only for studies using Asch's (1956) stimulus materials; where other stimulus materials were used (but where the task was also judging which of the three comparison lines was equal to a standard), conformity was higher in the Crutchfield (1955) paradigm. Finally, although we had expected conformity to be lower when the participant's response was not made available to the majority, this variable did not have a significant effect.

The second area of interest was on changes in the level of conformity over time. Again the main focus was on the analysis just using studies conducted in the United States because it is the changing cultural climate of Western societies which has been thought by some to relate to changes in conformity. We found a negative relationship. Levels of conformity in general had steadily declined since Asch's studies in the early 1950s. We did not find any evidence for a curvilinear trend (as, e.g., Larsen, 1982, had hypothesized), and the direction was opposite to that predicted by Lamb and Alsifaki (1980).

The third and major area of interest was in the impact of cultural values on conformity, and specifically differences in individualism-collectivism. Analyses using measures of cultural values derived from Hofstede (1980, 1983), Schwartz (1994), and Trompenaars (1993) revealed significant relationships confirming the general hypothesis that conformity would be higher in collectivist cultures than in individualist cultures. That all three sets of measures gave similar results, despite the differences in the samples and instruments used, provides strong support for the hypothesis. Moreover, the impact of the cultural variables was greater than any other, including those moderator variables such as majority size typically identified as being important factors.

Cultural values, it would seem, are significant mediators of response in group pressure experiments.


So, while the paper isn't definitive, it (and the papers it draws from) show reasonable evidence that there is a cultural impact on how much people conform.


I thought about that for a little while, and then I realized that I hadn't actually answered my own question.


My confusion stems from the disparity between my prediction and reality.  I'm not wondering about the effect culture has on conformity (the territory), I'm wondering about the effect culture has on my prediction of conformity (the map).


In other words, do people born and raised in a culture with collectivist values (China, for example) or who actually do conform beyond the norm (people who are in a flying-saucer cult, or the people actually living in a compound) expect people to conform more than I did?  Is their map any different from mine?


Think about it - with all the different cult attractors, it probably never feels as though you are vastly conforming, even if you are in a cult.  The same can probably be said for any collectivist society.  Imagine growing up in the USSR - would you predict that people would conform with any higher percentage than someone born in 21st century America?  If you were raised in an extremely religious household, would you predict that people would conform as much as they do?  Less?  More?


How many times have I agreed with a majority even when I knew they probably weren't right, and never thought of it as "conformity"?  It took a long time for my belief in god to finally die, even when I could admit that I just believed that I believed.  And why did I keep believing (or keep trying to/saying that I believed)?


Because it's really hard to actually dissent.  And I wasn't even lonely.


So why was my map that wrong?


What background process or motivated reasoning or...whatever caused that disparity?


One thing that, I think, contributes, is that I was generalizing from fictional evidence.  Batman comes far more readily to my mind than Jonestown.  For that matter, Batman comes more readily to my mind than the millions of not-Batmans in Gotham city.  I was also probably not being moved by history enough.  For every Spartacus, there are at minimum hundreds of not-Spartuses, no matter what the not-Spartacuses say when asked.


But to predict that three-quarters of subjects would conform at least once seems to require a level of pessimism beyond even that.  After all, there were no secret police in Asch's experiment; no one had emptied their bank accounts because they thought the world was ending.


Perhaps I'm making a mistake by putting myself into the place of the subject of the experiment.  I think I'd dissent, but I would predict that most people think that, and most people conformed at least once.  I'm also a reasonably well-educated person, but that didn't seem to help the college students in the experiment.


Has any research been done on people's prediction of their own and other's conformity, particularly across cultures or in groups that are "known" for their conformity (communism, the very religious, etc.)?  Do people who are genuine dissenters predict that more people will dissent than people who genuinely conform?


I don't think this is a useless question.  If you're starting a business that offers a new solution to a problem where solutions already exist, are you overestimating how many people will dissent and buy your product?

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