On not being alone

The Asch experiment is a classic, well-replicated psychological test.  A group of participants are asked to examine a series of lines and determine which two lines are the same length.


The trick is that only one person is being tested — the rest of the people in the room are in on the experiment.  After a few rounds where everyone answers correctly, the plants in the room start giving wrong answers.  With the group consensus stacked against the experimental subject, often they’ll start to bow to the will of the group.  About a third of the time, the subject will give an answer that conforms with the group instead of believing the evidence in front of their eyes.

This result is disheartening in the face of our current news environment.  However, I think there’s another important takeaway from this experiment.  In videos, it’s obvious that the subjects feel super uncomfortable.  Their voices shrink, they look around, they wince.  But give them one friend, one ally, and it changes.  When one of the plants gives the right answer while the rest continue giving the wrong one, the subjects of the experiment perk up and, overwhelmingly, give the right answers again.

It is difficult to be the one that stands up against group agreement.  But it’s easy to be one of two.

This is why it’s so harmful to have only one woman in a room, only one LGBT person in a room, only one black person in a room.  The pressure of a group can make a person deny something they can look up and see is obviously true.  If it has that power, surely it’s trivial to make us deny our own invisible discomfort.  How long until it convinces us that discomfort is not there?  That complaints of harassment or discrimination are unimportant?

Facing down a hostile group consensus alone is destabilizing — is damaging — and any space that cannot guarantee safety against this dynamic cannot be a safe one.