Metaphors often reveal the hidden connections between our perception of the physical world and our mental constructs. The expression “eye to eye” means “in agreement.” It turns out that seeing eye to eye in the physical sense may explain our tendencies to conform and “follow the crowd” under peer pressure. Put differently, what others say may change what you see.
In the 1950’s, Solomon Asch, conducted a series of experiments designed to understand the phenomenon we know as conformity. In his experiments, a group of participants were seated in a classroom and asked to compare the length of vertical lines. They were then asked to tell the group which vertical line, A, B, or C, matched the test line. The catch was that all of the participants except one were Asch’s aids . The aids first gave the correct answers, but eventually all began to give incorrect responses. Amazingly, the test subject began giving the same incorrect answers as the aids. Overall, after 18 trials, only 25% of the subjects never gave a false answer, and 75% of the subjects conformed at least once. However, in follow-up trials where one aid openly disagreed with the rest of the aids voicing the wrong answer, the test subjects easily identified the correct answer. So, it took just one dissenting voice to destroy the conformity spell.
Psychiatry professor Gregory Berns, the author of the book “Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently,” wanted to find out if people conformed because the peer pressure influenced their decision-making or because the group’s opinions affected their physical perception. The use of fMRI, registering different brain activation patterns, allowed the researchers to distinguish the “seeing” stage from the “deciding” stage. The experiments revealed that the peer pressure may actually shape the way we see things. Moreover, those subjects whose perception remained unaffected by the opinions of others and who went against the group showed more activation in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with fear responses and emotional control. It takes courage to disregard the fear and discomfort and go against the group.
So, how do we know whether we truly see eye to eye or we look at the world through the peers’ eyes? What do we do to avoid false agreements?