Humans are social creatures, and you don’t need to be a psychologist to know that. Whenever something excitingly wonderful or life-changingly awful happens we want to talk to a loved one, a friend, sometimes a complete stranger about it. Being social isolated is detrimental to our development. It’s why social networking makes people like Mark Zuckerberg some of the richest men alive (Facebook recently exceeded $500 billion in market value). So it’s not surprise that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are influenced by others (so much so that just the imagined presence of others can influence us). Today’s topic is going to be one of a few posts that explore our social nature and its impact on us. A solid understanding of the mechanics of social influence is a valuable tool in every writer’s toolkit.
Solomon Asch was one social psychologist that delved into the power humans exert over each other. His classic experiment was simple; ask a group of participants — there to participate in a visual discrimination task — to perform a simple task. On one card was a straight line, and on another were three comparison lines (A, B and C), one of which was the same length as the original line. They took turns in a fixed order to call out publicly which of the three comparison lines was the same length as the first line.
In reality, of the eight people sitting around the table, only one person was a naïve participant, and he answered second to last. The others were actually working with Asch, and had been instructed to always answer unanimously. The twist, the core of the experiment, was that sometimes these confederates (as psychology calls them) chose the wrong line of the three offered. On six trials they picked a line that was too short and on six trials a line that was too short.
The result were intriguing. And telling…
About 25 percent remained steadfastly independent throughout. 33 to 50 percent conformed to the erroneous majority!
After the experiment, Asch asked his participants why they conformed. They all reported initially experiencing uncertainty and self-doubt, which gradually evolved into self-consciousness, fear of disapproval, and feelings of anxiety and loneliness. Participants provided three different reasons for yielding:
- Most participants knew they saw things differently from the group but felt their perception must have been incorrect and that the group was actually correct,
- Others did not believe that the group was correct but imply went along with the group in order not to stand out,
- A small minority reported they actually say the lines as the group did.
Asch’s seminal research suggests that one reason why people conform, even when their experience is clearly discrepant to the group’s experience, may to be avoid censure, ridicule and social disapproval. Considering our social roots, this is a very real fear.
How can this help my writing?
Solomon Asch’s experiments show us how sufficient pressure can influence individuals to conform, even when the majority are wrong. Even when an individual knows the majority is wrong. Indeed, social pressure can be so influential that some individuals will accept that their perception is faulty. As a writer, there’s two main areas you can use this in your writing:
- As a recipe for mass evil — many a villain has been able to employ the obedience of the masses through the processes we just discussed. Your villain doesn’t need swarms of believers, they just need to create enough pressure for the remainder to conform. This can be achieved through a majority population, or a handful of fanatical believers establishing the status quo. It’s easy to extrapolate individuals following the majority of Asch’s incorrect line to followers believing a race is subordinate and must therefore be extinguished…
- To influence reader opinion — want your readers to dislike one of your characters? Even if their behaviour says otherwise? Have a group of fellow characters bad mouth them in what presents as a logical and reasonable manner. Although readers may see your character shaking hands and kissing babies, your reader’s brain is going to give weight to the evidence you’ve just presented — ‘oh, they think that so it must be true!’ Use the power of the group to undermine their conclusions. Actually this works in reverse. Want readers to love a character? Even if their behaviour says otherwise? Swap it around, have a handful of people sing their praises and you’ve just planted a nice little red herring.
Now if you’ve got a character that was in the percentage that stood fast by their beliefs, one of the individuals that didn’t change their mind about which was the correct line, then you’ll want to know that these individuals were entirely confident in the accuracy of their own judgement (easy with lines, with more ambiguous stimuli the percentage reduces), or they were emotionally affected but were guided by a belief in individualism or in doing the task correctly.
What do you think? Do you see these processes in a book you’ve read? Could you employ this social process in your book to strengthen a character or amp up your plot? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Have a wonderful week,
Did you see my Resident Writing Coach post on Writers Helping Writers? In preparation for my upcoming book, Grit for Writers, I explored What is the Real Purpose of Writing?