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“If it is wrong, it is wrong even if everyone is doing it, and if it is right, it is right even if no-one is doing it.”

I established this statement in order to address dilemmas we constantly face when either alone or in a group. We cannot avoid such situations for life is about taking action, doing things, giving or taking, going along with the others, belonging to a team, being in moments when decisions need to be made to engage or avoid. Life is fully about decision making. All decisions are made within relationships and we live entirely within a relationship with ourselves and of course within relationships with others. We are relational beings, other people matter. We live with other people in all aspects of our lives and these other people can make or break us. “Hell is other people” (Jean Paul Sartre stated such in his play No Exit) and at times they can be, and at other times they can be our friends and supporters. They influence us and we them. We are defined by how we relate to ourselves and to others and how we behave within the galaxy of relationships we establish or encounter in life. The desire we have to be accepted by others, to be of worth in and to have status within relationships, is critical to our sense of self efficacy, our self-worth and to our capacity to make a contribution to others and the world. So how do we decide to address the above statement, “if it is wrong it is wrong even if everyone is doing it, and if it is right it is right even if no-one is doing it”?

To stand alone takes great strength. To then act and become an upstander draws great attention and this attention can leave us threatened in many ways to not belonging , to “not being part of the team”, to “not playing the game”, even to believing we are better than others. We could also be charged with being selfish and not caring for others. All these are real and present. No doubt you can think of more examples and have at one time or another experienced many of these as you have attempted to influence things, change the minds of others, institute a new idea or plan, challenge someone or some idea or just put a question. This is how life plays out moment-to-moment for choice and subsequent decision making is how we live.

To stand alone means taking a risk for we are risking being alone. We are establishing a leadership position and we are hopeful that others may believe in us and follow our move. Psychologist Solomon Asch conducted an experiment in the early 1950s where he attempted to gain an idea on our capacity to stand up, to stand alone, to be an upstander. The experiment was simple. Imagine yourself sitting in a small room, seated at a table next to six strangers. Nobody is saying much to one another, so you can feel relatively safe assuming all six of the strangers are unknown to one another as well. That makes sense to you, given that you are there because you signed up to participate in a research study. You give each of the participants a quick once-over glance and maybe flash an obligatory tight-lipped smile when your eyes accidentally meet. At the front of the room, a researcher clears her throat, welcomes everyone, and thanks you all for participating in the study. She tells you that she is going to be showing you pairs of white cards with solid black lines on them just like cards in the figure below. The first card has one solid line on it. The second card has three solid lines on it. Your job as a participant in the experiment is to tell the researcher which of the three lines on the second card is the same length as the line on the first card.

The researcher begins by holding up both cards next to each other. It is clear that line 1 on the second card is shorter and that line 3 is also shorter than the line on the first card. Line 2 is obviously the right answer. It is almost too easy. You assume this must be a warm-up question designed to get you in the right frame of mind for the real test. You are a good sport, so you play along. The first person is instructed to give a response. Much to your surprise, the first participant says line 1 – the short line – is the same length as the line on the first card. Now, you assume this is a screening round to weed out any incompetent participants. You conclude that this guy must need glasses and he won’t be joining you in the later rounds of the experiment. What you don’t know is that everyone in the room except you are acting. They were told ahead of time to give the same answer just to see what you will do. So, the second participant gives the same incorrect answer as the first participant. Now you start to get a little confused and probably question your initial judgement. You ask, did I misunderstand the instructions? Pretty soon it is your turn, and you have watched all five of the people before you choose the same wrong answer. You rub your eyes, or maybe give your glasses a quick wipe, and then refocus. No change. It still looks to you that line 2, and not line 1, is clearly the same length as the line on the first card, despite what all five of the seemingly normal people in front of you have said. Which answer do you give?

In Asch’s experiment, three-fourths of the people in the study knowingly gave the wrong answer in order to conform to the other people in the group. After each experiment, Asch’s team interviewed the study’s subjects. All of those who gave the wrong answer confessed that they knew full well which line was the same length, but they consciously chose to give the wrong answer …. why? Because that is what everyone else did. Asch’s study proved than an overwhelming majority of people, three-fourths of us, are not willing to take the social risks necessary to decide ourselves when in a group setting. We have a powerful urge to remain in good standing with the group, and we believe that we can keep good standing by agreeing. In reality, we do not need to actually be in a real group for we constantly “test” our decisions and actions before an imaginary or virtual group we value or believe may judge us. We wish to protect our status in reference to others, our social regard. “What will others think of us?”

The belief that disagreeing will lead to falling out of favour with a group is not paranoid delusion or undue social anxiety. In later studies Asch turned things around so that only one person in the group was an actor, and the other six people were legitimate subjects. This time Asch’s actor was instructed to give wrong answers in order to find out how the rest of the people would treat the nonconformist.

Just as all of our instinctive social phobias would predict, the rest of the people in the room treated the actor like an outcast. They even went so far as to laugh at the nonconforming actor when he gave the incorrect answer. At the end of the study the subjects said that they did not like the nonconforming actors. It was plain evidence that when a person chooses not to conform, that person pays a hefty social price. The study proved that, for most of us, being correct is trumped by the need to remain in the group. Asch found his results alarming, commenting “that we have found the tendency to conformity in our society so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black …. It raises the questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct”.

The widespread contagion of conformity alarmed a lot of people beyond just Solomon Asch. Asch’s results were confirmed by Kahneman and Tversky’s studies later in the 20th century where they found that only about one-fourth of people followed their own impulse and took the risky option while everyone else selected the safe route. What is unique about this quarter of the population? An important example of this difficulty of standing alone was captured in the film
12 Angry Men. Here one member of the jury disagreed with the majority and slowly, through great effort, influenced all to change guilty to non-guilty. And, in doing so, the film shows how each jury member wrestles with losing status in the group of guilty deciders and migrating to the non-guilty group. It also shows how status grows as the number of so minded gather and how status slides as others see the group to which they had adhered declines in number and influence. To stand alone can be difficult, can be lonely and can be threatening but we are all asked to do so more often than we think. We need to stand alone in situations that are foreign to us as well as situations that are familiar. We need often to be supported but at times this support is either slow in coming or is not likely to appear in the moment (or in the long run). This can also challenge us further for we will at times find ourselves alone.

Standing by, not accepting the social and moral responsibility to stand up, is a way out but it can lead to a sense of connection to a group who likewise stand by and this can be attractive. The argument advanced for this stand is that “it is not my responsibility”. Those who stand up immediately see that it is a responsibility to “do the right thing”, to care beyond self-status, to look to the “common good”. Solomon Asch described the power of the group and “group think” research endorses such findings as does the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and no doubt your own research through your own life confirms it for yourself. The research into contagion also confirms that certain actions or inactions are contagious and can impact way beyond your own and capture others to do likewise.  So, “if it is wrong it is wrong even if everyone is doing it, and it is right if it is right even if no-one is doing it” does present often and I ask all to stand up, to be upstanders, to be responsible and to contribute to the greater good. By doing so you will add meaning to your life and change the lives of others for the better.  You will add meaning to their lives. This is not simple it requires courage and an intuition based upon “doing the right thing”. Believe me you can do this. It is for you, and for others, the way forward.

John Hendry   OAM (April 2019)

Worksheet:

  1. Write a short description of when you were confronted with the choice to stand alone or not and explain how you decided, either to stand alone or not to, and give the reasons as well as the consequences of whatever decision you took.
  2. Often people decide to take a certain action when others are about but to not do so when alone. Please see if you can explain this briefly.
  3. Do you pick up paper? If so, why? If not, why not?
  4. What do you see as your responsibility as a citizen, a family member, a parent, a team member, a member of a class, a passenger, a friend?
  5. I the light of this “discussion” please explain your idea in reference to the Australian term “dobbing” when it comes to friendship or being a citizen. How does the concept of standing up relate to dobbing?
  6. What is the “Genovese syndrome”? Please do investigate “the Bystander Effect”. Please listen to Professor Phillip Zimbardo as he discussed the Stanley Milgram “Obedience to Authority” experiment and consider this important work in reference to Standing up.
  7. Can you imagine yourself acting in ways that you know are wrong but you are being obedient to authority? Who is the authority in this case, was it a parent, a teacher, a club, a coach, a team, a more powerful individual or culture? What interfered with you doing the right thing?
  8. Can you think of someone you admire who does “Stand Up” and what enables them to do so?

 

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