In Chapter 8 of the book “Subliminal”, physicist and author Leonard Mlodinow recalls an interesting experiment by Muzafer Sherif, PhD, that demonstrates how peoples’ perceptions often conforms to that of the groups around them – so strongly that the conformity remains even when the individual is no longer surrounded by the group.
Here’s an excerpt:
“In his work, decades ahead of its time, Sherif brought subjects into a dark room and displayed a small illuminated dot on a wall. After a few moments, the dot would appear to move. But that was just an illusion. The appearance of motion was the result of tiny eye movements that caused the image on the retina to jiggle… under normal conditions the brain, detecting the simultaneous jiggling of all the objects in a scene, corrects for this jiggling, and you perceive the scene as motionless. But when a dot of light is viewed without context the brain is fooled and perceives the dot as moving in space. Moreover, since there are no other objects for reference, the magnitude of the motion is open to a wide degree of interpretation. Ask different people how far the dot has moved and you get widely different answers.
Sherif showed the dot to three people at a time and instructed them that whenever they saw the dot move, they should call out how far it had moved. An interesting phenomenon occurred: people in a given group would call out different numbers, some high and some low, but eventually their estimates would converge to within a narrow range, the ‘norm’ for that group of three. Although the norm varied widely from group to group, within each group the members came to agree upon a norm, which they arrived at without discussion or prompting. Moreover, when individual group members were invited back a week later to repeat the experiment, this time on their own, they replicated the estimates arrived at by their group. The perception of the subjects’ in-group had become their perception.”
There is something to be said for belonging to a group. We are social creatures and we strive to connect with others. We enjoy being surrounded by likeminded people, but how do we balance this with a quest for the truth? How can we protect ourselves from being so sure about our in-group’s subjective convictions so we can be more open to the subjective thoughts and views of others – as well as objective reality?
Thought to consider: If you, along with your in-group, arrived at the conclusion that the ‘dot moved two inches’ (based on the experiment above); what would be needed to change your mind? Would you be less certain after talking to people from other groups who thought the dot moved three or four inches? And what would be required for somebody to convince you that the dot actually didn’t move at all?
(I don’t mean to only pose this question to you; it’s something I ask myself as well…)