Is two plus two still four?
In the 1950s, social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted his famous conformity experiments. What did he do? He invited eight young men to the laboratory. They were shown two graphs. One of the graphs showed a single line and another graph showed three lines. The participants had to say out loud, one after one, which of the three lines was equal in length with the single line.
The differences were not hard to spot, with one line clearly at the same length, and the others significantly shorter or longer. In the control group, the error rate was less than 1%. But here is the thing. All but one participant were hired actors. They were trained to in some trails unanimously state that a line which was clearly shorter or longer than the original line, was of the same length.
The one person who wasn't a hired actor suddenly found himself in a room with seven people who all confidently stated that two lines that were clearly much different in length, were the same. Imagine that you are in room with seven people who all say with confidence that 2+2=5. Will you speak your truth? Or will you doubt your sanity?
Solomon Asch repeated this experiment many times. What did he find? More than one third of participants agreed to the public opinion, despite obvious physical evidence that the lines were unequal in length. They ignored the laws of physics and adapted their opinion to the popular one.
In the graphic you can see a picture from the experiments. To the left and the right are the hired actors, while the person in the middle is desperately trying to make sense of the situation. Are the two lines really of the same length? Who is right and who is wrong?
What does this tell us? People want to be part of a group. There is significant conformity pressure to adapt our opinion to the public opinion, regardless of what is right and what is wrong.
Why do people behave this way? Nobody wants to be excluded. Our brain processes social exclusion like physical pain. Back when we lived in small groups of 50-150 people we only survived since we were part of a community. Being excluded from this community was equal with a death sentence. Our world might have changed, but our brains have not.
Why is this relevant today? We live in a time when society is split. Those who confirm with the public opinion and those who do not. That per se is not a problem. In a world where we have freedom of opinion, and freedom of speech, we should be able to peacefully live together with people who think differently from ourselves and the media should give different points of view space to be expressed. Isn't that what a democracy is all about?
My personal observation is that we are moving away from that standard. People are in fear, and when people are in fear, they follow public opinion and stop asking uncomfortable questions.
Let me give you a few examples for public pressure.
In Germany, the government first ignored the warnings from the WHO. On January 31, when Germany was still celebrating carnival in public gatherings, the official television channel of Bavaria released a piece which stated that anybody who thinks that the virus is dangerous, is a conspiracy theorist, or even worse, a right-wing-activist. The government had a change of mind a few days later. Ever since then we have the mass media telling us that whoever does not think that the lockdown was adequate is a conspiracy theorist or a right-wing-activist.
The bottom line: If you don't agree, you have to be discredited. For your own safety. For everybody's safety.
First, the government said that wearing a mask is dangerous, now wearing a mask is mandatory in public spaces. At first they said that you are spreading the virus by wearing a mask. Now they say that you spread the virus by not wearing a mask.
At first, to conduct autopsies was strongly discouraged in order to protect pathologists from the disease. One German pathologist did it anyhow and dissected more than 100 corpses. He was publicly discredited and attacked. He happened to find information that might be relevant to better treat the patients afflicted by covid-19. Now autopsies are recommended. Could it be that his courage to stand up for his professional opinion saved lives going forward?
On March 14, the German government issued a statement on social media: "!Warning Fake news! Some people are stating and rapidly spreading the idea that the government will soon limit public spaces and issue a lockdown. This is NOT true! Please help us to stop the spread of this disinformation". Two days later they closed the schools.
Governments have the right to change their minds. It's even a positive thing, if the changes in opinion are science-based and have people's best interest at heart. After all, who doesn't want an agile government?
What I find worrisome is the desire to always condemn those who do not follow the public opinion. As a trained neuropsychologist, I can't help but compare the situation to the famous conformity experiments. Who knows the truth? Who knows whether the majority is right or whether the minority happens to have a point?
George Orwell famously said: "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows." Let's think of his famous words before we judge others who think differently from ourselves. We can only win this if we stand together rather than working against each other.
Conformity: Asch, S.E (1956) Studies of independence and conformity: A minority of one against a unanimous majority.
Social exclusion: Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. NI Eisenberger, MD Lieberman, KD Williams, Science, 2003
German authorities stating that the virus is not dangerous:
German authorities stating that lockdown is fake news: https://twitter.com/bmg_bund/status/1238780849652465664?s=21
George Orwell: "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows"
Picture: From Solomon Asch experiment