Considering the Conflict in Conformity

image002Agreeing with others, even when they appear to be more knowledgeable on a subject, is not always easy, or predictable, according to Bert Hodges, professor of psychology, who along with  a team of scholars, conducted a series of experiments to explore the social psychology of conformity. The result is a new article, “Speaking from ignorance: Not agreeing with others we believe are correct,” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106, 218-234. doi: 10.1037/a0034662. 

Hodges‘s co-authors (Meagher, B. R., Norton, D. J., McBain, R., & Sroubek, A.) are all former Gordon students finishing doctoral degrees in psychology or public health (University of Connecticut, Boston University, Harvard University, and Yeshiva University). Their work takes one of the most famous experiments in social psychology, inverts it, and shows that even when people “should” conform, they often do not. Instead people appear to act in ways that are sensitive to the demands of values such as truth, social solidarity, and trust.  Here’s how Hodges described it:

“The experiments had an individual participant answer questions about words on the screen that they could not see clearly from their position, after having heard two other people who were in much better positions answer correctly. What do you do when asked to speak from a position of ignorance? Although it seems obvious that people would always agree with others who have greater knowledge, participants made up their own, incorrect answers about 30 percent of the time, sometimes choosing not to agree even when they could win money for correct answers.

Why make up wrong answers? It seems awkward, even wrong, to repeatedly answer questions based only on others’ claims. Always agreeing raises the specter of not speaking truthfully (participants cannot see the words themselves) and taking advantage of one’s peers (plagiarizing, as it were), thus threatening social solidarity. This speaking from ignorance effect (i.e., disagreeing with correct answers) was predicted by Hodges and Geyer’s (2006) theory, offered to explain social dilemmas in which there is a conflict between one’s own perception and the testimony of others.”

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