The science bit

Asch’s famous experiment is fairly typical of post-War psychology experimentation, in that it engineers a social situation in the laboratory whereby a psychological hypothesis can be tested crisply and conveniently. Asch believed that individuals are capable of standing up to pressure to conform, and to test his hunch designed an artificially clear-cut situation in which individuals’ responses to concerted pressure to conform could be quantified. The fact that Asch’s hunch was proved wrong is nothing bad in science: on the contrary, it’s when hypotheses are convincingly proved that one may have reason to doubt, for which reason experiments are nowadays formally designed to try and disprove a hypothesis.

Most people who hear about Asch’s experiment take it as gospel. In truth, one should never simply accept the findings of any experiment as reported in the media without pausing to check how the experiment was conducted, and then considering the possible caveats. If you don’t, you could find yourself parroting nonsense. A classic example is Mehrabian’s famous experiments at UCLA in 1967, when he recorded women’s emotional reactions to pictures, written words, and spoken words. All that the experimentation was designed to test was the hypothesis that our feelings are inclined to be influenced by stuff other than the thing that ought to matter most, the verbal content. However, you’ll now hear speakers, from business experts to politicians, citing Mehrabian to affirm that precisely 55% of what we remember is visual, 38% tonal, and 7% verbal – the very figures that he reported having derived from his experiments.

Even a modicum of common sense would prevent such people from embarrassing themselves, but sadly we live in a society that does not prize scientific rigour as highly as it should. To check the likelihood of this being generally true, they’d only have to imagine how the scores would have differed had the experiments been conducted variously using a playlet, a radio broadcast, and a silent movie. Indeed, it turns out that experiments comparable to Mehrabian’s come up with very different results; and Mehrabian only got to his figures by colliding the results of two different experiments anyway. All one can justifiably infer is from this work is that, if you put people in a lab and expose them to different forms of stimulus, they’ll react to much other than the meaning of words.

Asch’s own experiment suffered from the perennial difficulty facing psychology professors: expense. You generally need quite large numbers of people to do robust science, and research subjects are hard to get unless you’ve money to give them. Consequently, psychology experiments in universities have tended to be conducted – at least before the internet age – among campus students, who form something of a captive audience. The most obvious criticism to throw at Asch, therefore, is that his subjects were atypical in all being young, highly educated males. This is a fair reservation to express; but does it invalidate the research? I think not. If anything, other social-demographic groups would seem to me to be more likely to conform than this one. Equally, later research suggested that conformity may have diminished considerably since the 1950s, though that research had its own methodological issues. These are the sort of objections that can only be answered for sure by repeating the experiment among other groups at other times.

Further objections have concerned the facts that the seven-to-one ratio of stooges to subject may simply have been intimidating, and that the effect may be militated against if the subject is not alone. It turns out that the best ratio for achieving conformity is in fact around four-to-one; but the effect is indeed much reduced if the subject is accompanied or answers in private. Knowing these additional facts gives us a more nuanced understanding than the raw notion that people simply conform with the majority. The fact is that, experimentally, a substantial proportion of humans will conform to the majority view even when it is patently wrong; but this is still experimental evidence, rooted in artificiality, whose ‘external validity’ remains to be seen. In other words, the extent and volume of conformity will vary according to the particular real-world circumstances, depending on whether it concerns a fashion, a political movement, or a plain old piece of gossip.

Although I’ve picked on the estimable Professor Asch to make these comments, they are true of most of the lessons in the Philosophick Fables. The whole point of science is that, unlike religion, it regards itself as eternally provisional and open to improvement. Consequently, none of the lessons is presented as carved-in-stone truth. Rather, they should all be regarded as interesting findings from psychology that have captured Old Bunyard’s imagination at some point. Needless to say, they all have enough academic credibility in my eyes to be worth taking seriously. But that’s not to say that any of them won’t be revised or even rejected at some point in the future. And that’s why, although you won’t go far wrong if you simply read the Fables, it’s worth investing even a few minutes going online to look up the keyword for any particular lesson. That way, you can always put people straight if they try blinding you with journalistic pseudoscience.

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