The Romans

The music is so soft, so delicate, that only those with keen perceptive hearing, will be able to distinguish this melodious charm of music.

Take a look at this picture:


Cards used in the Asch conformity experiments (image credit: nyenyec)

The line on the left-hand card is the same length as one of the lines on the right hand card. But which one – A, B or C?

You’re probably thinking C. But what if seven other people had answered before you, and they had all said B. Would you be so sure of your response then?

That was the situation that faced the subjects of the Asch Conformity Experiments, started by psychologist Solomon Asch in 1951. The subjects were told that they were part of a group of eight volunteers taking part in a psychological experiment, but in reality the other seven people were working for Asch, and had been instructed to all give the same, incorrect answer.

The results were striking. Three quarters of the subjects gave the incorrect answer at least once, while only a quarter consistently answered correctly. By contrast, a control experiment showed that subjects gave the right answer more than 99% of the time when they were on their own, so it was definitely the deliberately wrong answers of the seven actors that were causing people to pick the wrong line.

When Asch interviewed the participants afterwards, he found that their reasons for giving the wrong answers were varied and complex. Some of them truly believed that the group must be right, despite the evidence of their own eyes. Some were well aware that the group was wrong, but went along with the majority in order to avoid being the odd one out. And a few became convinced that there must be some inadequacy in themselves that was preventing them from seeing the correct answer.

But perhaps the most striking result came when Asch changed the experimental set-up very slightly. Instead of all of the actors giving the wrong answer, instead all but one of them did so: the other was instructed to give the correct response. In these circumstances, the conformity rate dropped drastically, to about a quarter of the previous rate. It seems it only takes one dissenter to break the spell of conformity.

This of course, if the famous climax to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The emperor and his courtiers have been persuaded by con men that the emperor is wearing a suit of the finest fabric, which cannot be seen by the stupid or incompetent. The emperor duly parades naked in public, showing off what he believes are his marvellous new clothes to the astonishment of the watching public, who all cheer his fine garments until a child says “But he isn’t wearing anything at all”. The cheers turn to jeers as the crowd all realise the emperor is naked, but he and his courtiers continue parading as best they can, determined to carry on the show.

The truth in Andersen’s parable was realised earlier by the great political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli. In chapter 23 of The Prince, “How Flatterers Should Be Avoided”, Machiavelli recommends that

a wise prince ought to hold a third course by choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them only the liberty of speaking the truth to him, and then only of those things of which he inquires, and of none others; but he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions.

Here, Machiavelli treads a careful path between unbridled dissent that would undermine the prince’s authority, and the dangers of a court in which the prince hears only what he wishes to hear and is blinded to the truth.

But what if someone wants to encourage conformity? They may be  con men trying to sell invisible clothes, a time traveller caught impersonating a famous musician, or a politician wanting a country to support a war or acquiesce in mass surveillance. In these cases, relying on the psychology of conformism isn’t enough. After all, Solomon Asch found that a quarter of people will not succumb to the pressure to conform, and that is a dangerous level of individualism for these deceivers and authoritarians. They need to add an extra factor: a penalty for speaking out.

In Andersen’s tale, the con men claim that the cloth cannot be seen by anyone who is unfit for office or unpardonably stupid. Naturally, no one wants to be thought of in that way, so everyone pretends they can see the beautiful material. The Doctor insists that only those with keen, perceptive hearing can discern the music, but in this case he only really has to appeal to Nero’s vanity: the dangers of contradicting an impulsive dictator with the power of life and death would surely keep any subordinates quiet.

None of us in the democratic West is in much danger of being summarily executed for speaking our minds. However, there are still systems to cow dissent, and the more significant the groupthink in the ruling establishment, the more critical the political situation, the more powerful the suppressing influence that is brought to bear. People with ideas just a little outside the political mainstream are dismissed as nutters and obsessives, poorly dressed and socially undesirable. This isn’t just a way of rejecting their proposals, it’s a way of ensuring that the rest of the group gets the message: don’t take these ideas seriously, or you’ll be a social outcast too.

And when it comes to matter of war, espionage and national security (which principally means the security of the governing class, and only incidentally the security of the rest of us), well in those cases dissent becomes all the more intolerable. The British weapons inspector and scientist David Kelly endured intense pressure and public smearing when he dissented from the Government’s assessment of Iraq’s weapon stockpiles in the run-up to the 2003 invasion. Within a few days he killed himself in the woods near his home. Here was the man who spoke up to say the emperor had no clothes, and the emperor drove him to take his own life. If dissenting voices on both sides of the Atlantic had been valued instead of scorned, a disastrous war might have been avoided.

More recently, the cases of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, who each punctured myths of the US security establishment, one now imprisoned, the other an exile, show the lengths to which the deep core of the state will go to suppress dissenting voices. But they might also show the value of such dissent. The current disquiet among US telecoms and hosting companies as they suddenly find potential customers wondering about their reliability, and the increasing questioning of the surveillance state, is starting to feel like a spell has been broken, and that the people are looking at the emperor with new eyes.

It’s too soon to say how these recent developments will play out. What we can say for sure, though, is that there is great wisdom in allowing ourselves to be questioned, and great danger to any society in shunning or persecuting those who question the received wisdom. The open society may seem unruly and difficult to manage, bit it will always win out over a society that refuses to question itself.