13. The Ash Experiment

In 1951, the Gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch showed in the so-called conformity experiment how peer pressure affects a person’s decision-making ability. Fifty male students took part in the experiment. In it, a test person had to compare a line (=target line) with several lines of different lengths and make a guess as to which of the comparison lines matched the target line. With him in the room was a group of other participants, whom the subject was supposed to believe were – like him – subjects; but in fact they were insiders and part of the experiment. All of them had to say their assessment aloud, but the real subject was the last. In 18 runs, everyone gave their assessment; in 12 of them, the fake subjects collectively estimated incorrectly.

The result: one third of all “real” test persons agreed with the group’s opinion at least once, although the assessment was obviously wrong. As a reason, most of them later said that they had consciously joined the group’s wrong opinion for fear of attracting attention or being laughed at. Another part of the test persons doubted their own assessment and trusted the judgement of the majority.

Although the experiment was criticised with regard to various points (e.g. very limited selection of the group of people), Asch was nevertheless able to work out certain tendencies for group conformity:

  1. The fear of being excluded from a group
  2. The belief that the majority is right (swarm intelligence)

However, these two causes are influenced by the following factors:

  • Group size (the larger, the more compliant).
  • Extent of unanimity (the fewer different opinions, the more compliant)
  • Complexity of the task/topic (the more complex, the more compliant)
  • Anonymity (reduces conformity).

In social media, status and recognition are the biggest motivators. As a result, rating and comparing come to the fore alongside communication and interaction – often unconsciously. The key here is likes and followers, and depending on the network, other components (e.g. Snapstreaks). They reflect a concrete measure of approval, comparable to the score of a computer game. The invention of the “Like” button symptomatically shows the enormous impact a small “game mechanic” can have on user behaviour: the hunt for Likes not only fires the imagination of those who produce content, they are now also a purchasable product that boosts personal ranking.

Taking Asch’s findings into account, envy, feelings of inferiority and social pressure on the individual thus increase depending on the chat size and the diversity of opinions. In principle, anonymity is good to escape the pressure of the masses, but it is also ambivalent, since free expression of opinion can be both positive (authenticity) and negative (disinhibition).

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