The confusing wisdom of crowds

Bad Science covers an interesting new replication of Asch’s famous conformity experiments – a classic study where participants stated that a line was longer or shorter than it really was simply because others in the room also gave the clearly erroneous answer.

In the original study (there’s some great video here), the other people in the room were stooges, asked by the experimenters to give the wrong answer, but this new study used technology to genuinely show different images to everyone except the conformity target and the results were strikingly different.

Instead of one real subject in a room full of stranger stooges, they used polarising glasses – the same technology used to present a different image to the left and right eye for 3D films – to show participants different images on the same screen, at the same time, in the same room. This meant that friends could disagree, legitimately, and so exert social pressure, but without faking it.

The results were problematic. Overall, sometimes the minority people did conform to peer pressure, giving incorrect answers. But when the results were broken down, women did conform, a third of the time, but men did not. This poses a problem. Why were the results of this study different to the original study?

The point of the piece is to highlight how science actually works, with conflicting results and context dependent changes in outcome, but there’s also a good discussion of possible reasons why the effect wasn’t replicated.

Link to Bad Science on conformity and .
Link to DOI and summary of new Asch replication study.
Link to original video from Asch on the conformity experiments.

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