The young man squinted hard at the lines in front of him. He’d been asked to match a line to another line of the same length. He could see very clearly which it was. There shouldn’t be any doubt.
But the other young men who were seated at the table with him were unanimous. And they had, all of them, chosen the wrong line.
Pressed for an answer the young man went along with the group, knowing their answer was wrong.
To him, agreeing with the group was more important than the truth, was more right than fact.
Soloman Asch, the psychologist that led the experiment, found similar results in group after group. With nothing tangible at risk and no persuasion at all most subjects were willing to let a group of unarmed, nonthreatening strangers prevail at least once.
Questioned later, many of the subjects indicated that they’d feared the ridicule of the group. Some seemed to have even convinced themselves that the group must be right and they themselves wrong.
Conformity studies such as this one seek to observe the level of need of the individual to fit in with a group, but what about the group? What is there to fear from a group and why?
The answer is that groups do have the power to enforce their collective will on an individual, through punishment if necessary, regardless of the rationality, or lack of rationality, of the demand.
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), the United States military policy formally repealed today, represents nothing so much as the power of a group to force its own version of reality upon dissenting individuals. Non-conforming service members faced the threat of losing their jobs and their homes, the companionship of their local friends, and were vulnerable to blackmail, perpetuating a threat to national security.
LGBT U.S. military personnel have now gained the right to claim their own thoughts and feelings about sexuality.
The unspoken and well supported fear of the group by individuals is another matter.