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Opinion Column
For the week of October 18 through 24, 2000

Social pressures and the independent person

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH

The majority of subjects held their ground and chose the correct line a couple of times before caving in and aligning themselves with the choice of their peers, despite the evidence of their own eyes that they were lying to themselves and to the world.

At one point in life I had a fascinating job with the Sociology Department of Stanford University. I worked with and learned much from several very bright and interesting professors and Ph.D. candidates. My job was to coordinate projects and compile data from various sociological studies. One experiment, impossible to forget, involved social pressures and the independent person, or, more accurately, how social pressures corrupt the independent person.

The study worked like this: four people entered a windowless room and sat side by side at a rectangular table facing a wall. On the wall was a mirror and, above the mirror, a screen. Three of the four people, seated numbers one, three and four at the table, worked for the Sociology Department. The fourth person, the subject of the study, did not know that and had been told the study was about visual perception. That person sat in the second seat.

On the other side of the wall, the mirror was a window in a soundproof room from which the reactions of the subject could be observed without the subject’s knowledge. A series of images of different size lines was projected on the screen above the mirror. On the left was a single line; on the right four lines marked A, B, C and D. One of the four lines clearly matched the line on the left, and the other three obviously did not. The job of the four people at the table was to pick which of the four lines--A. B, C or D--matched the line on the left and to announce their choice. It was an easy task for anyone with normal vision.

For the first two images flashed upon the screen everyone picked the correct matching line. After that, the people in the first, third and fourth chairs picked the same incorrect line. The purpose of the deception was to study the reaction of the person in the second chair, for it was obvious the other three people were choosing the wrong line.

On the whole, the reactions were pretty discouraging, if all too human. After all, sociology is one way to study humanity. Despite the tendency of people to alter their behavior (and perceptions) when they know they are being observed (or graded or judged), this study is worth thinking about, both in terms of personal introspection and social observation.

The majority of subjects held their ground and chose the correct line a couple of times before caving in and aligning themselves with the choice of their peers, despite the evidence of their own eyes that they were lying to themselves and to the world. A few, a distinct minority, went along with the majority a few times before returning (literally) to their senses and choosing the correct line for the remainder of their time in the second seat. It also seemed to me that the expressions on their faces revealed a diminished human being while lying and a return to wholeness and health as they repossessed the truth of their own senses.

But perhaps that was only personal relief that my participation in deceiving these people had not permanently damaged them. Of the dozens of "subjects" (human beings, after all) involved in this study during the time I was there, only one young man chose the correct line every time. I still remember him as a confident, even brash person, who probably was an abrasive conversationalist at polite dinner parties. But he looked at his three table mates as if they were crazy each time they picked the obviously wrong line. If dishonesty is a form of craziness, then, of course, he had that right too. To my way of thinking, that young man who possessed the integrity to trust his own eyes against a unanimous social/peer pressure to violate his own intelligence and senses represents the best of mankind as well as the world’s best hope. He never flinched.

Everyone understands the inclination to conform, to please, to belong and to be a "good" boy or girl, man or woman, citizen or employee, member or acolyte, to find a fit within the social body. One is rewarded with acceptance. Whether such approval is worth the cost is, of course, a personal decision; but the more one has invested in violating the evidence of one’s own senses, the more difficult it becomes to honor the information those senses provide.

Using the old Stanford sociological study as a model, which answers…A,B,C or D…most accurately fits the questions?

Why are the salmon of Idaho on the verge of extinction?

The dams

The terns

The fish in the sea

Not enough barges

The destructive forest fires of 2000 in western America were the result of what?

The Forest Service policies of Bill Clinton and the Democrats

Not enough logging

A hundred years of fire suppression

Not enough wilderness fire roads

What is the biggest threat to life on earth today?



Lack of family values

The Environmental Protection Agency

Everyone could make up their own questions and select a list of answers from any newspaper on any day. It could provide an interesting after-dinner entertainment for the near sighted, the far sighted, and that minority who trusts their own perfect vision.


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