By DR. JEFFREY L. MITCHELL, Head of School, Currey Ingram Academy
While each year thousands of studies are completed in psychology and education, there are a handful that over the years have had a lasting impact on education and learning. In a series of Extra Credit articles, I will highlight a number of seminal studies that have had a profound impact on teaching and learning.
The fourth article in this series is based on three classic studies on conformity that sent shock waves through world of social science when they were published. Each study presents compelling evidence that human beings will conform to a group, authority figure or a role, even when that conformity results in supporting a wrong or “bad” idea or in the obvious mistreatment of other human beings.
Introduction – The Studies
In 1951, Solomon Asch designed a study to evaluate a person’s likelihood to conform to a group. Participants were shown an image like the one below and asked the straightforward question: Which line is closest in length to the standard line?
Each group, however, had only one true participant. The others were “confederates” who followed a script given to them by Asch that required a false judgment about which comparison line was most similar to the standard line. So for the image presented, the group would say comparison line 1 or 3 most resembled the standard line. Counterintuitively, a very high percentage of the participants conformed to the group’s answer.
In 1971, Philip Zimbardo conducted the famous “Stanford Prison Study.” (A recent documentary chronicles this iconic study.) Zimbardo set out to study how human beings conform to roles. In this case, very contrived roles. Participants were assigned the role of “prisoner” or “guard.” The basement of the Stanford psychology building was converted into a “prison,” and the “guards” were told to run the prison for two weeks. After a few days, the guards became verbally abusive towards the inmates and many of the prisoners became submissive to those in authority roles. The experiment was shut down after five days because a number of the guards were taking their roles very seriously, and a number of prisoners were highly stressed.
In perhaps the most (in)famous social psychology study ever conducted, Stanley Milgram (1961) wanted to assess people’s willingness to obey authority figures when instructed to perform acts that conflicted with their morals. Subjects were deceived into believing they were participants in a memory study. In the study, subjects were asked to monitor another person (who was actually a confederate of the experimenter) doing a memory test and were instructed to pull a lever that gave an electric shock each time the person got a wrong answer. The confederates, who were in another room, did not actually receive the shocks, but pretended (very realistically) as if they did. The shocks increased in voltage with each incorrect response.
The most compelling, heart-wrenching and demoralizing aspect of the study was that simply based on the authority figure’s requests, about two-thirds of the subjects increased the shocks past seriously harmful and even lethal voltages.
Thoughts and Implications
First, the reader should know that due to more effective ethical guidelines, these three experiments would have no chance of being conducted today.
Nevertheless, to our discomfort, they shed light on the potentially darker side of our humanity, i.e., that everyday folks like you and me might, in certain circumstances, behave in ways that we would not think possible. Together, the findings show how much human behavior is situational and how people will over-conform, if the conditions are right.
The results of the Asch study make us think about the power of conforming to the group, even when we disagree with what they are saying. The Zimbardo study causes us to think about how quickly we fall into roles and how our thinking is clouded by those roles. The Milgram study demonstrates the sheer power that perceived authority can have over our best judgment.
It is wise to remember that conformity is critical to a healthy functioning society. We all need to conform with other people, laws, ethical principles, etc. Without some degree of conformity, anarchy prevails. Yet, we want to become more cognizant of the ways that over-conforming, or conforming in ways that compromise basic ethical principles, can undermine what’s right.
A Role for Education?
Without question, certain educational practices can help students find a conformity balance.
First, parents and schools must be intentional about infusing self-advocacy opportunities into the lives of students. Creating advocacy skills in students makes them much less likely to follow something or someone they do not truly believe in. This can take myriad forms, but they all involve encouragement and the room to fail.
At Currey Ingram, students are encouraged to self-advocate for their learning needs and are taught specific ways to do so. Older students are measured on this skill every quarter and asked to present at their conferences about the ways they do and do not succeed in this area. We have three of these hourlong conferences per year, so this opportunity is frequent for our students in grades 7-12. For all students, we also offer many opportunities in the arts, athletics and other extracurriculars that bolster self-esteem, which leads to more effective self-advocacy and leadership development. Every Division celebrates a Strengths & Talents Week that incorporates self-advocacy opportunities, as well.
Schools can also encourage independence and individuality by implementing strong persuasive writing components as part of their humanities curriculum, along with formal debating, public speaking and extracurricular clubs that advocate for causes. Students can be taught to state their “case” from a young age, while also being taught the appropriate channels and ways to do so. I heard recently that in Trevor Noah’s book “Born a Crime,” he details how his mother had him write letters to her to make his case when he felt she had dealt with him unjustly. This, or allowing for an acceptable scenario for the child to “talk back,” is a way a parent could perhaps encourage similar skill sets in the home.
Finally, the topic of cyber-bullying is top of mind in today’s culture. When I think of a group chat or online interaction that goes “bad,” I think of the Asch study. This “pile on” effect is particularly powerful with children and youth who do not have fully developed executive functioning and cognitive skills. Their cause/effect understanding is quite simply not yet mature enough to understand how their actions may affect others. Schools and parents must talk with students often and in a variety of ways about how to detect when a bad idea/thought/action is happening in a group and how to safely and effectively get help to stop it.
As I mention above, conformity has its place, particularly when it comes to rules, safety precautions, social mores and values-based norms that help our society thrive. It is our job as adults to help the young people in our lives to know the difference – and to equip them with the best possible tools for detecting and stopping their own temptations to conform in unwise or unsafe situations.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is the head of school for Currey Ingram Academy. “Extra Credit” is provided each month by Currey Ingram Academy to help parents at all schools and at all stages of the parenting journey. Currey Ingram Academy is a coed, independent K-12 school in Brentwood for students with learning differences such as dyslexia and ADHD. For more information, click here.