Individuality vs. Conformity

A classic image of the 1951 experiment.
A classic image of the 1951 experiment.

In my Psych 112 class, we learned about the Solomon Asch line experiment on conformity vs. individuality. In 1951, Solomon Asch devised one of the most classic experiments of social psychology at Swarthmore College with 8 participants total. However, 7 of the 8 “participants” were actually associates of the experimenter disguised as participants, also known as confederates. The experimenter asked each of the 8 participants to choose which of the three lines on the right card matched the length of the line on the left card. This same task was repeated with different cards a few times. The correct answer was obvious. If the participant gave an incorrect answer, it would have clearly been due to group pressure. Group pressure occurs when certain individuals in a group resort to conformity instead of relying on individuality.

The lines

The results of this experiment are fascinating! On average, about 32% of the participants who were placed in this situation conformed to the rest of the group and chose the obviously incorrect line. Asch believed that people conform so easily due to normative influence and informational influence. Normative influence means that the individual wants to fit in with the group, and informational influence means that the individual believes that the rest of the members of the group are better informed. Asch found that the factors that increased conformity were the size of the group, the difficulty of the task, and the status of the majority group. On the other hand, Asch found that the factors that increased individuality were social support and answering in private.

JohnStuartMillWhile pondering this experiment, I couldn’t help but relate it to Mill’s On Liberty. Mill believes that “individuality is one of the leading essentials of wellbeing[,]” and that it is extremely important for individuals to have the opportunity to express their individuality, as they desire. “In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others.” Mill deeply believes that people can learn from individualists who do not become conformists. Society needs individualists to help it maintain a level of growth. Without these individualists, a society full of conformists would plateau. Mill also believes that individuality helps not only society, but the individual himself as well because everyone needs different atmospheres to thrive individually. If everyone were the same, then no one would have the opportunity to succeed. Thus, society needs to pave the way for people to be different and express their individuality because social progress becomes stifled when everyone in society practices conformity.

imagesIt is interesting to relate Mill’s ideas of individuality to those of Asch’s line experiment. Both Mill and Asch confront the question of conformity vs. individuality. Had Mill been a participant in Asch’s study, he would have stressed the need to choose the correct answer and not listen to the rest of the group. For Mill, it would have been more important to represent individuality as long as it did not harm the rest of society, and, in this case, it wouldn’t have any major impact on society. However, had Mill been a participant, he may have felt anxious due to group pressure and chosen the false answer. It is impossible to know, but perhaps Mill’s awareness of the pressure to conform might have allowed him to withstand the pressure. Perhaps consciousness of the pull between individuality and conformity would have helped Mill choose accurately. Had each of the participants of the experiment read Mill’s On Liberty, maybe they would have chosen the correct answer and fought against conformity.