Written and Narrated by
Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin
“Parents seldom accept as an excuse their child’s plea of “Hey, everyone else is doing it!” However, psychological studies demonstrate that those same parents, and everyone else, tend to take their cues for proper behavior in most social contexts from the actions of others. This pressure is called the conformity bias.
Psychologist Solomon Asch found that when he asked subjects to tell which of three lines is the same length as a fourth, no one had difficulty doing it unless they were placed in a group with Asch’s confederates who gave obviously wrong answers. Under those conditions, almost all of the subjects found it very painful to give the obviously correct answer in contradiction to the strangers’ wrong answers. In fact, most participants gave an obviously incorrect answer at least once during the study.
This bias to conform is much greater, of course, when the others in the group are not strangers but are co-employees or friends, or when the correct answer is not right there in black and white as it was in the Asch Study but is instead a subjective question like an ethical issue.
The impairment of individual decision-making known as “groupthink” – where people deciding in groups often make more extreme decisions than any individual member initially supports – can exacerbate the conformity bias. It can be reasonably argued that loyalty and groupthink helped Morton Thiokol employees to remain silent about known O-ring dangers that caused the Challenger space shuttle disaster.
An employee at the accounting firm KPMG challenged the ethics of tax shelters that the firm was selling. He received a simple e-mail that said: “You are either on the team or you are off the team.”
Well everyone wants to be on the team. We all realize loyalty is generally an important virtue. But it causes a pressure to conform and this pressure to conform, has been argued, helped cause Ford employees to sell the Ford Pinto despite awareness of its gas tank dangers, and helped A.H. Robins employees to continue to sell the Dalkon Shield contraceptive IUD despite knowing its ghastly medical consequences.
Psychological and organizational pressures can cause even people with good intentions to lie or otherwise act unethically. Good character, unfortunately, is not always sufficient. As Albus Dumbledore told Harry Potter, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.””