Written by Frances T. Shure
30 April 2014

Frances Shure, M.A., L.P.C., has performed an in-depth analysis addressing a key issue of our time: “Why Do Good People Become Silent—or Worse—About 9/11?” The resulting essay, to be presented here as a series, is composed of a synthesis of reports on academic research as well as clinical observations.

In answering the question in the title of this essay, last month’s segment, Part 5, explored the concepts of denial and cognitive dissonance. We resort to denial to avoid cognitive dissonance, that uncomfortable and sometimes disturbing feeling of losing our emotional equilibrium when faced with new information that challenges our worldview, or when we hold beliefs that are contradictory to known facts.

In Part 6, we continue Ms. Shure’s analysis with the Solomon Asch experiments on conformity and Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann’s theory of the “spiral of silence.”

Part 6: Conformity

In the early 1950s, experiments by Solomon Asch of Swarthmore College vividly demonstrated our human proclivity to conform to a group’s prevailing view. Several students selected prior to the experiment were instructed to act as if they were subjects of the experiment, whereas in reality, they were confederates, or plants. These confederates were all instructed to give the same wrong answer in identifying the length of a line on a card. One real and unsuspecting subject then joined the group, and when the experiment was under way, an instructor assigned the task of matching the length of a line on a card to the correct line among three different sized lines on the same card or another card. In 36.8% of the cases, the real subject would abandon his or her original right answer and would agree instead to the other participants’ unanimous wrong answer.1

This brilliant research clearly shows the power of peer pressure to persuade individuals to conform to the majority. The result was consistent in succeeding experiments unless, in a variation of the experiment, there was one other “partner” (also a confederate), who gave the correct answer before the real subject answered. If this one supportive partner was present, the subject acquiesced to the majority opinion only one-fourth as often, showing the power of an ally to provide the courage to remain independent, although many of the subjects would deny that such a partner had any influence on their answers.2


This variation on the experiment shows that the power of the group comes not from its numbers, but from the unanimity of its opposition. When the unanimity of the group is punctured, the group’s influence is greatly reduced.

Why did 36.8% of the students conform? Through interviews, it was discovered that sometimes they were convinced that the others were right. This is called “informational conformity.” Others conformed because they were apprehensive that the group would disapprove of them if they were deviant. This became known as “normative conformity.”

Read more