Group Conformity and Problem Solving in a Nutshell: Group conformity is often the major obstacle to effective group creativity and problem solving. Conformity can be reduced or even eliminated if its underlying reasons are addressed.
Asch’ Conformity Experiments
In a classic study published in 1951, Solomon Asch showed that conformity has a mighty influence on our behavior. Imagine yourself taking part in a vision test. First, you see several lines of different length. Then you see a new line which you have to match with one of the first lines. For example, lines might look something like this:
Even people with poor vision would easily match the new line with the first line; the correct answer seems too easy. Until something happens. Before you give your answer, seven other participants give theirs, and one by one, they say that the new line matches the second line. What you don’t know is that all other participants are the experimenter’s confederates. They were all told to give an obviously wrong answer. In fact, in your group, you’re the only real subject of this study. Now it is your turn to give the answer. What answer would you give?
If you were a typical person, just like the subjects in Asch’s study, you would go with the group at least once. Asch found that his subjects gave wrong answers 33% of the time and about 75% gave a wrong answer at least once. Yet, when his subjects had to write their answers on a sheet of paper without the group pressure, they gave correct answers close to 100% of the time. The only reason, Asch concluded, is that the group pressure forced people to give wrong answers just to conform to the majority.
Need for Acceptance
One underlying reason behind conformity is our need for acceptance. If we go against the majority, we risk being rejected from the group. For social animals like humans, it is often more important to be accepted than to be right.
A culture also influences how much people feel pressure to conform. For example, conformity grows in collectivistic cultures more than in individualistic ones. Collectivistic cultures place a high premium on interdependence and cooperation; non-Western societies are mostly collectivistic cultures. In contrast, individualistic cultures, which have prevailed in the West, support autonomy and independence.
Another reason for conformity is the so-called informational influence. We are generally trying to have correct information and other people’s attitudes and behavior show whether we’re correct or mistaken. Informational influence is strongest when we are dealing with subjective evaluations or ambiguous issues. The less competent we are or the less sure we are about a correct answer, the more we’re swayed by other people’s opinions.
Yet, as Asch’s experiments showed, people may be swayed by the group pressure even if there is little ambiguity. However, to have this effect, the group has to be large and unanimous. Asch found that smaller groups caused less conformity. He also found that conformity could be cured if at least one other person would break off from the majority; interestingly, the dissenter didn’t even have to give a correct answer, only an answer that differed from the majority.
Takeaways: Reducing Conformity
It is crucial to eliminate conformity as much as possible if we want to ensure effective group problem solving and creativity. To do that, it is important to address underlying reasons of conformity.
- Support Differing Opinions. First, clearly show that people will be accepted in the group even if they express differing opinions; in fact, it may be necessary to show strong approval for independent thinking when people disagree with you or other members of the group.
- Dissenters and Devil’s Advocates. Conformity often disappears when there is at least one dissenter, as shown in the Asch’s experiments. If there are no natural dissenters, sometimes it may be worthwhile to appoint the devil’s advocate, someone whose task is to disagree with the majority.
- Tolerating Ambiguity. Conformity increases when there is a lot of ambiguity, because people want to have correct information and avoid making mistakes. Paradoxically, of course, paradoxically groups are much more likely eventually to come up with innovative insights and “correct answers” if they initially encourage making mistakes. So try to show that it’s ok to be mistaken and not to have correct answers.
- Group Size. Conformity increases with group size, especially if it is unanimous. So it may be useful to break the large into smaller teams.
 Solomon E. Asch, Effects of Group Pressure Upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgments. In Harold Guetzkow (ed.), Groups, Leadership and Men (Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press, 1951) pp. 177–190; Solomon E. Asch, Studies of Independence and Conformity: I. A Minority of One Against a Unanimous Majority, Psychological Monographs, 70, 1-70 (1956).