Why It’s Tough to be Different

We’ve known definitively that it is difficult to go against the grain since 1951, when Soloman Asch of Swarthmore College conducted his first conformity study. What would happen if you were asked to participate in a study and when asked a question with an obvious correct answer, the first seven participants all gave the wrong response?

The hypothesis is that social pressure will alter the responses of those who simply can’t withstand the discomfort of being different. In the first study, Asch invited 50 male college students to participate. They were always alone with a group of “confederates” – planted participants. The real participant always sat toward the end of the table, and therefore had to answer after most.


The questions were dead simple. In this example, Asch’s experimenter asked which line on the second card was the same length as the line on the first. In the control group there was less than a 1% error rate.

The first few questions would be answered by the confederates correctly, luring you into comfort.  But out of 18 total questions, the confederates would answer 12 of the questions wrong.

The Results

Only 25% of the real subjects gave the correct answer every time, regardless of the confederates’ responses. While we can surmise that this group of independents had greater ego strength than the others, there were three unique reactions.

Of those that answered correctly, they either expressed confidence in their ability to answer correctly while the rest of the group failed, withdrew from the experience and simply answered with disregard to the rest, or exhibited significant doubt and tension in being different.

75% of participants caved to the pressure to conform at least once. Of those that yielded to the majority more than half of the time, the participants fell into three groups as well.

There existed a small group that truly accepted the majority’s perception as more accurate than their own, believing that the confederates were providing the correct answer. When interviewed, their reaction to the experience was so ingrained that they were completely unaware that the confederates had responded incorrectly at all.

The majority of the “yielders” were fully aware of the conflict between their perception and the answers of the confederates, but over time accepted that the majority must be correct, lacking the confidence to question the group.

Finally, another small group expressed confidence that they knew the correct answer, but admittedly conformed with the majority in order to avoid discomfort; they did not want to feel “inferior” within the group.

Overall, participants in Asch’s studies conformed to the majority about 1/3 of the time. This held true across repeats of the same study with greater numbers of participants.

What does this mean for our efforts to design a life around our unique strengths, passions, and priorities?

If you observe those around you and begin to honestly observe yourself, we conform in many ways to the majority. When we are unconscious of this impact, we can struggle to understand why we aren’t happy with the results.

Perhaps the majority you are surrounded by have a big stucco house an arm’s length away from identical homes on either side with an Audi parked in the driveway.  We fail to question why we are drawn to obtaining the same.

“Joe,” a former client, waited in line for every new Apple gadget that came out, despite acknowledging that he had massive debt. He works at an Apple store and is surrounded by friends who all must have the same. “Sherry” was in a similar camp, buying new outfits every season based on the latest trends. She shelled out hundreds for already ripped jeans during the fad, following suit with her trendy friends.

When we are conscious of how and why we conform, we can purposefully evaluate whether the conformity is innocent or if it is in fact undermining our true goals and happiness.

What choices have you looked back on and wondered why? In what ways are you confidently unique, happy in your weirdness?

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