The Fable featured on the Sample page of this site is the first in the collection: ‘The Compliant Antelope’. In this post, I’m going to look at it in more detail in order to demonstrate the depth of scientific knowledge behind the lesson at the end of each of the Philosophick Fables, not to mention the value that learning these lessons has to us as individuals.
This particular Fable tells the story of an unfortunate antelope whose way across a river is barred by a crocodile. When another assures her that it’s not a crocodile but a piece of wood, she at first is sceptical; but the certainty displayed by the other’s three friends so convinces the antelope that she takes the plunge, with dire consequences. The lesson with which the Fable concludes is this: “what is patently wrong/ looks less clear when one’s peers all dissent”. What’s true of this apocryphal group of antelopes is just as true of us human beings.
As with so many of the psychological lessons of the Fables, the striking point here is that the brain does not operate as it ideally should, or indeed as we imagine it does. We like to think that we’re good at observing, making our minds up about what constitutes the truth, and acting accordingly. In fact, we’re subject to endless “quirks of human nature”, as one reviewer put it, that help account for many of the mishaps that befall us when our beliefs don’t correspond to objective reality.
Of course, it’s possible to take this lesson as no more than the sort of commonsense maxim that you’d find on a Victorian sampler. Look further, however, and you’ll find it’s a psychological phenomenon deserving a deeper understanding. What we’re talking about here is what’s known in psychology as ‘conformity’, and it was the special object of study by a Jewish emigrant from Poland, Solomon Asch, who became a psychology professor in America.
Some of the most famous post-War psychology work was concerned with understanding what had gone wrong in Germany, the civilised land of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms that had nevertheless spawned the Holocaust. Asch’s belief was that individuals are in fact equipped to withstand group pressures to conform – even presumably from a totalitarian movement like national socialism – with the benefit of the right moral fibre. The experiment he designed to test his hypothesis was simplicity itself, but yielded surprising results.
Asch got groups of eight men to decide together which of three black lines matched the length of a fourth. There was in fact only one real research subject in the group; the rest were secret stooges who’d been briefed to disagree with him. What Asch found was that the subject changed his judgement to conform with the group in about a third of instances, even though the group’s judgement was transparently wrong. In fact, only a quarter of the subjects consistently refused to conform. Asch optimistically took this as a sign that we’re inclined to agree in order to be sociable. A more critical take would be that our judgement may be more malleable than we might wish.
As so often with famous experiments, methodological issues have been raised with the original experiment, which I shall come back to in a future post. Nevertheless, the fact of such a level of conformity in the face of plain wrongness is intriguing, and the finding has not gone unnoticed by parties outside of academia. In political circles, the principle of conformity is now so well known and accepted that there’s media evidence of its exploitation practically every day of the week. The conventional wisdom is that, if undecided voters can be persuaded that the majority’s preference is for Candidate X, then that fact alone is liable to swing their vote.
Consequently political movements – or most often the news organisations that support them – assiduously conduct opinion polls to provide fodder for their propaganda cannons. It was telling that, the morning after this week’s presidential debate in America, the first headlines I saw were concerned much less with what either candidate had to say than who had most impressed the electorate. Needless to say, the two camps were drawing entirely opposite conclusions.
My own experience is that politicos, like many experts, systematically overrate the importance of the psychological quirks they happen to be aware of. For one thing, certain people are more susceptible than others, and some not at all. For another, though an effect like conformity is always a possible factor in decision-making, it’s only one of many. In practice, an individual may conform publicly yet vote the opposite way in the privacy of the ballot box, just because more pressing practical concerns (like personal circumstances) prove decisive. It’s one of the major reasons why polling organisations are often acutely embarrassed on election day.
Yet, even if conformity is only one factor among many in the political arena, it can prove conclusive in some spheres. Some years ago I was involved in a project to develop a sports stadium. It led me to an investigation into why the phenomenon of home advantage exists in sporting contests. After reading a stack of academic literature, I formed the view that there are multiple reasons; but the one that particularly stuck out for me was the effect of noisy home-crowd support on the referee.
Referees pride themselves on being entirely impartial; but brain science says otherwise. Three English sports scientists called Nevill, Balmer and Williams did some clever experimental work that they published in 2001. The name of their paper says it all: ‘The influence of crowd noise and experience upon refereeing decisions in football’. To find out what the level of influence might be, they designed a simple experiment: they got forty referees to make decisions while watching match incidents on video. The video was either accompanied by the crowd noise, or on mute. The experimenters simply recorded the differences between the decisions the refs made in the two conditions.
Incredibly, the refs awarded significantly fewer free-kicks against the home team in the crowd noise condition than without noise: 15.5%, to be precise. I can do no better than quote the researchers’ conclusion: “It is suggested that referees’ decisions are influenced by the salient nature of crowd noise, the potential use of heuristic strategies (i.e. using extraneous clues to make their mind up) and the need to avoid potential crowd displeasure by making a decision in favour of the home team”. In other words, they can’t help conforming from time to time, which presumably translates to a systematic if unintentional bias to the clubs with the most vocal support. It’s instructive to think about other spheres where such biases might exist.
Conformity is probably just one of the strategies the brain has evolved for dealing with a fast-moving world. It may sometimes lead us astray; but we can reasonably infer that, if humans inclined to conform haven’t gone extinct, it confers a net survival benefit. The important thing for us as individuals is to be aware of such a phenomenon, and remain alert when unscrupulous types try to use it to take advantage of others, or of us!