Just Reflections

By Bhekani Khumalo

Conformity | Just Reflections - Issue #42



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Conformity | Just Reflections - Issue #42
By Bhekani Khumalo • Issue #42 • View online
Have you ever encountered an idea that makes no sense and seems completely ridiculous and wrong but is very popular and everyone seems to agree with it? Everyone seems to go along with it in popular media, yet you don’t know anyone who agrees with it in private conversation? I can think of a few.
What do you do in such a situation? Should you speak up and risk looking foolish in front of everyone or should you stay silent and keep it to yourself?

There once lived an emperor who loved fancy new clothes. Jackets woven with gold, trousers laced with silver made with the softest and most lavish materials. More than ruling his people wisely, he was always concerned with wearing the latest and best outfit. One day, two mysterious travellers came into town. They sort an audience with the emperor and told him they are esteemed weavers who can make a very special cloth. One so fine that it is invisible to foolish people.
The emperor’s attention was immediately captured, and he ordered for everything to be given to the weavers to allow them to make him an outfit with their special cloth. They asked for the finest silk and golden thread and set up two looms where they toiled day and night weaving nothing. Many days later, the emperor was curious about how his new outfit was coming along so he sent his most trusted and intelligent advisor to check on the progress.
The weavers presented their special work to the adviser who couldn’t see anything, but he dared not say it out loud lest it exposed him as a fool. So he admired their great work and presented an excellent report to the emperor. And the weavers continued their work for many more weeks, asking for more fine silk and golden thread. Throughout the entire period, the emperor sent several more of his advisers to check on the outfit, each coming back with an excellent report so that it did not expose them as fools.
Eventually, the weavers finished their work and presented it to the excited emperor who was planning to wear it for a highly anticipated procession where everyone was eager to see the emperor’s new clothes. On presentation, the emperor couldn’t see anything, but fearing being exposed as a fool he admired it and asked the weavers to dress him.
Being very careful, they pretended to dress the king in the fine new outfit, even nipping the trousers a little at the waist for a better fit. They then stood back to admire their handiwork and gave great compliments about how well it suited the emperor.
When the emperor went out for the procession, the people applauded and complimented him. Each person was too scared to admit that the emperor was naked for fear of being thought of as a fool. Until a child shouted, “He is naked!” Then one by one, all the people began admitting the same truth, “he is naked!”
It was at this point that the emperor realised he had been deceived by all his advisors and by the scandalous travellers. But by this time they were long gone with all the gold thread and silks the emperor had given them and they were never seen or heard of again.
This is the famous fable by Hans Christian Andersen called “The emperor’s new clothes.” It is an allegory to show collective ignorance of an obvious fact despite undeniable evidence.
It is also a reminder to all of us that truth is objective and real. And it is important for us to learn how to find it and to speak up for it even if no one else will. Once someone sees another person speak up for truth, it gives them the courage to speak up as well.
This is a pleasant children’s story but do you think this could happen in real life?
Back in the 1990s, a psychologist named Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments called the Asch Conformity Experiments. The experiments showed that even clear-minded people can discard evidence they can clearly observe and yield to the group’s opinion.
I’ll describe the experiment but check out the video below to get a more detailed account.
Asch Conformity Experiment
Asch Conformity Experiment
A subject is told that they will be given a test to measure their visual acuity in determining line lengths. They are shown a standard and then they are shown three comparison lines and are asked to say which line is equal to the standard.
Simple right? By themselves, subjects got the answer right 99% of the time. This is not a complex text, so this is expected.
In a second variation, they bring the subject into a room with several other people. This time, before the subject gives their answer the other people will give theirs first. What the subject doesn’t know is that these other people are actors who have all been instructed to confidently give the same wrong answer. This time 75% of subjects end up missing at least one answer on purpose just to go along with the group. That’s many people giving wrong answers just to go along with everyone else.
In a third variation, they bring a second subject into the room. They are not an actor so they give the correct answer as well. Now the first subject has a buddy. This time, only 5% of the subjects intentionally missed the answer to go along with the group. The conformity significantly drops when the subject doesn’t have to stand for the correct answer on their own.
In the final account the researchers found that throughout the whole experiment, 33% of the time people gave the wrong answers just to go along with the group.
Asch’s study shows that when there is a group that agrees that reality is not the way we see it most of us will give in and go with the group’s perspective even though our observation tells us otherwise. We will purposely do things we know are wrong to conform with a group. However, we are less likely to conform when we know there is someone else in the group that shares our differing opinion.
In fact, the study distinguished two forms of conformity; informational conformity and normative conformity. Informational conformity is when we go along with the group because we believe they are right and we are wrong. We believe the group is more informed than we are or they know something that we don’t. Normative conformity is when we genuinely believe that we are correct but we go along with the group to avoid the discomfort of disagreeing. We conform to avoid social punishment and we don’t want to be seen as an outsider.
The point of all this is to show that there are many psychological processes that go into creating the scenario in the emperor’s new clothes. Where everyone seems to agree with something on one hand yet, no one seems to find any sense in it. And it’s quite prevalent in our own society.
Brain Games   Conformity Waiting Room
Brain Games Conformity Waiting Room
Why does any of this matter?
We live in a really crazy world right now. There are many ridiculous things that have been accepted by the mainstream and having a differing opinion can be really uncomfortable and alienating. I suspect that most times, many people realise how ridiculous things are but no one has the courage to call out opinions that differ from the popular opinion. So we’re all just cheering for the naked emperor.
So the next time you feel yourself going against your gut, think about all this. Do you believe you might be wrong or do you just want to conform with the group?
It’s important to speak out whenever you feel you may have different ideas from the people around you. You never know, you may be the buddy that others need to give them the confidence to speak up against the group. Be that little kid who calls out the emperor on his nudity and frees the entire kingdom to admit the reality that they can all see but are too afraid to admit.
The emperor is naked! But we’re too busy signalling our wokeness to call it out.
Keep an eye out for the next issue where I’ll talk about the other consequence of conformity, “Preference Falsification”.
That’s all I have for you this week. If you like the newsletter, consider sharing it with others on TwitterWhatsApp or Facebook. Hit the thumbs up or thumbs down below to let me know what you think.
I hope I’ve given you something to think about this week and I wish you ever-increasing curiosity.
Until next week.
2022 Resolutions:
Weight: Get to 75kg by April 28 and 70kg by July
Had a good week in terms of exercise this week but it’s only the start of trying to recover things. Let’s see how it will go.
Sleep: Consistently sleep avg. 8 hours per day
Averages this week:
  • Duration: 7h 8m.
  • Avg. bedtime: 02:49.
  • Avg. wake-up time: 09:58.
Things are going well here. I don’t know if I’ll get to 8 hours but I feel really well rested with 7 so maybe that’s what I need. We’ll see.
BusinessStart a business in 2022
Nothing much to report here. Same stuff I’ve been taking about on all the issues.
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Bhekani Khumalo

Impactful ideas that challenged my thinking.

I have a lot of interests so I'm always learning all kinds of things, some of which really challenge my thinking. In the Just Reflections newsletter, I'll be sharing with you a summary of the ideas that challenged my thinking recently and hopefully they will challenge yours too and we grow together.

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