“It’s that deadliest of modern diseases—popular approval without private faith.”
James Hilton, best known as the author of Goodbye Mr. Chips and Lost Horizons, was describing Britain’s somnolent march into World War II. In the prelude to war, he believed a general consensus—malleable and shallow—had supplanted deeply held convictions. He saw it in the weakening of religion’s moral influence and the substitution of wishful thinking for political debate. He called these people gravediggers; “They’re the safe men, the compromisers, the money-makers, the muddlers-through.” Those who stood apart were the dangerous men. These were people who couldn’t be bought or placated and, ultimately, couldn’t be ignored. Pretty gloomy stuff. Unfortunately Hilton was right and soon the world would experience carnage on a scale unimaginable even by World War I standards. It would take dangerous men like Winston Churchill to reinvigorate private faith and restore the world to some semblance of order. But was it any surprise that with victory secured, the dangerous man was bounced from office and the somnolists returned? Not at all.
It certainly came as no surprise to psychologist Solomon Asch who in 1951 began a series of experiments on the nature of conformity. Conformity is a powerful social driver. At its best, conformity makes it possible for us to live amicably (more or less) together. At its worst, it results in popular acquiescence to the kinds of heinous crimes perpetrated in Nazi Germany. Asch knew the power of conformity but wanted to discover why we conform. To do this, he conducted a series of group experiments on what each research subject thought was a study of visual perception. Subjects didn’t realize that the other members of their group were project confederates. Out of 18 perception trials, the confederates gave 12 obviously incorrect answers. The results were surprising. Subjects in a control group and working independently gave incorrect responses less than 1% of the time. Subjects working in the group, however, responded incorrectly 39% of the time—despite knowing their answers were wrong! Asch reached twin conclusions. First, people have a strong desire to fit in with the group—any group. Second, folks generally assume that the group is more knowledgeable than they are; particularly in unclear situations.
It’s the extent to which people publicly conform while privately disagreeing found in Asch’s and subsequent research that’s so alarming. It means we agree to a lot of what we don’t believe just to please a group that might well be wrong. You’re probably beginning to realize that “consensus decision-making,” as practiced by most organizations, is conformity’s favorite bedfellow. The very structure of this management tool compels conformity. The whole idea is to get everyone “on the same page.” But given that about 40% of folks want to be on another page, it means we’re never fully invested in the success or failure of a decision. If things work out, all well and good. If they go awry—well we didn’t think it would work anyway. It’s a neutral form of engagement with little genuine commitment. “Popular approval without private faith,” doesn’t seem to be working too well for us. Maybe it’s time to start standing up for the things we believe and not simply bend to the will of the group or community. Maybe it’s time we all became a little more dangerous. —Ebert