Catherine A. Sanderson
The storming of the Capitol could have been much worse. The rioters came within feet of Sens. Mitt Romney and Chuck Schumer and searched intently for “crazy Nancy” Pelosi, the House speaker. They built a gallows and wanted to execute Mike Pence. They chanted “Bring out Pence! and “Hang Mike Pence!” Trump’s response? To tell them, “We love you. You’ve very special.”
Senators saw this and much more in chilling videos this week. And then 43 out of 50 Republicans voted to acquit Trump of inciting this insurrection, blocking a conviction and the opportunity to ban him from future office. Why? Why do most Republican leaders appear to see the events of Jan. 6 as no big deal, when so much of the country views them as a serious challenge to one of the founding principles of democracy, the peaceful transfer of power?
As a social psychologist, what I see here is a classic case of conformity and groupthink.
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Humans care deeply about fitting in
In the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch recruited candidates for a simple study on visual discrimination. Participants were asked to look at a target line, and at three other lines, and determine which of the three was the same length. This is an easy task, and when people do it on their own, they make virtually no errors.
Asch then examined whether people would give what they knew to be a wrong answer in order to fit in with a group. He recruited male college students in groups of eight, but only one person — the test subject — wasn’t in on the game. Each student gave his answer in front of the group, with the unknowing participant coming last.
In most trials, everyone gave the correct answer. But in a few cases, some or all of the accomplices were told to give the same wrong answer. How did the test subjects respond? Over 30% of the time, they gave the wrong answer in order to conform with the rest of the group. Seventy-five percent conformed at least once; in some groups, half the test subjects gave the wrong answer on as many as half the trials.
What’s remarkable about this is that the participants had no particular need to fit in with the others in the room. This wasn’t a gathering of friends, fraternity brothers or colleagues. Yet still, they gave answers they knew to be wrong in order to conform. Asch himself was disturbed by the results. “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,” he wrote, “is a matter of concern.”
Are we less likely to conform if the stakes are higher or the choice more public? The answer, as subsequent studies have shown, is no. Humans are social animals who care deeply about fitting in and will shift their own views accordingly.
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In fact, work by neuroscientists reveals that our tendency to follow the crowd is hard-wired in the brain. Researchers in one study analyzed brain activity when participants believed their own music preferences were — or were not — in line with those of music experts. People who learned that an expert shared their music preferences showed greater activation in the ventral striatum, a part of the brain that processes rewarding experiences. (This is the same part of the brain that is activated when we win money or eat chocolate.)
On the other hand, when we learn that our opinions differ from those of others in our group, parts of the brain that process social learning and rewards are activated. This pattern of neural activity is basically the brain’s way of saying, “You’ve made a mistake; please correct it.” As researcher Vasily Klucharev, the lead author on this study, notes, our brain “signals what is probably the most fundamental social mistake — that of being too different from others.”
Party ties and fear of Trump rejection
The tendency to conform to members of our group, and fear the consequences of calling out bad behavior perpetrated by group members, is deeply ingrained. It helps explain why most people fail to speak up in all kinds of situations — when a fellow student circulates a list rating female students’ bodies, when a friend or relative uses a homophobic slur, or a colleague makes an offensive comment. And, yes, why so many Republican senators refuse to acknowledge how Trump’s actions led to the events of Jan. 6.
Group conformity is especially common when we’re in stressful situations and under time pressure. As described first by psychologist Irving Janis in the 1970s, these conditions often lead people to engage in groupthink, a decision-making style that prioritizes reaching unanimous agreement over making the best decision. Groupthink helps explain bad choices made by groups of all kinds, from NASA leaders who went ahead with the launch of the space shuttle Challenger to Penn State University administrators who covered up the child sexual abuse committed by then assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
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And certain groups are more likely to fall prey to this tendency than others. We see it most often when group members are similar to one another, are isolated from divergent viewpoints, and have a strong leader who discourages deviant opinions. It’s therefore not surprising that GOP senators, who share a strong party identity and continue to fear rejection by the former president, are prioritizing fitting in over doing what’s right.
But unfortunately for us all, this choice may have lasting consequences for our democracy. As President John F. Kennedy reflected after his reliance on groupthink led to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion: “Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed and no republic can survive.”
Catherine A. Sanderson, the Poler Family Professor and Chair of Psychology at Amherst College, is the author of “Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels.” Follow her on Twitter: @SandersonSpeaks