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Monday, 31 August 2015

Lying about lines



This widely-known experiment originally devised by Solomon Asch is usually presented as demonstrating the power of group conformity. A brief review of the experiment can be found here.

Does the experiment demonstrate conformity?

Yes but one could also turn it around and say it demonstrates the power of lying. Each experimental collaborator lied to the subject about how they perceived those line lengths. Lying about lines was crucial to the experimental design. So Asch’s experiment also demonstrated the dynamics of group lying, how certain situations may persuade some people to assent to the most obvious lie, in spite of the evidence of their own eyes.

Were the subjects lying to themselves as well as the rest of the group?

Afterwards the subjects were interviewed and those who made false responses gave various reasons for doing so. They presumably knew they were giving false responses even though they were participating in an experiment. For all they knew, their false responses might have ruined the experiment, but still they lied.

Did they really know they were giving false responses? If so what do we mean by “know”? What we observe is that in different circumstances these subjects exhibited different behaviour. In the interviews they admitted their responses were false – different circumstances, different behaviour. That’s all we observe.

So what would we say if the subjects had never been interviewed afterwards, if the different circumstances had never occurred? In a sense it doesn’t matter because what we are interested in is the behaviour, not hypothetical possibilities going on inside the subject’s head.

We are social animals and a group’s preferred modes of language and behaviour may exert a powerful hold on its members even to the extent of lying to the rest of the world. When we add in the endlessly subtle and deceptive resources language has to offer, how even the most blatant distortions can be obscured by evasive words and phrases, then it is easy enough to see how lying can become a feature of any group. Even those with a diffuse international membership.

EU referendum anyone?

4 comments:

James Higham said...

Afterwards the subjects were interviewed and those who made false responses gave various reasons for doing so. They presumably knew they were giving false responses even though they were participating in an experiment. For all they knew, their false responses might have ruined the experiment, but still they lied.

Covering for themselves.

Roger said...

Imagine, some tiresome person has dragged you into a damnfool experiment of no significance or value to anyone. You will never have to do the experiment again, the outcome does not affect you at all, just collect your goody bag and go. Of course people lie and will say anything to get out of a tedious meeting. If the stakes were high - say £1000 and the consequences for failure were you-get-zilch I reckon the result would be very different.

Demetrius said...

There is an art to lying and that is knowing when you can get away with and when you can't. As the actress said to the Bishop.

A K Haart said...

James - retrospectively too.

Roger - I think that's why they used students, quite apart from availability. In my student days I took part in an experiment devised by the psychology dept and as far as I could see we all took it seriously.

Demetrius - yes, it's an important aspect of real life.