Tag Archive for: Asch experiment

A Friendless Existence is the Loneliest Kind of Lonely

Aristotle is reported to have said, “No one would choose a friendless existence on the condition of having all the other things in the world.” What good would it do you to have everything but no one to share it with?

I recently made a trip to California and my wife Jane was going to accompany me. The plan was to do some work then extend the time into some vacation. Unfortunately, she badly broke her ankle the week before the trip and the doctor told her no flying because of the change of blood clots.

While California was beautiful and I met up with an old high school friend, a college buddy and finally met a long time Facebook friend it was not the same without Jane. I often tell people, anything I do is better when she is around. She brings out the best in me and gets me out of my comfort zone to try new things. Missing her got me thinking about Aristotle’s quote.

Human beings are social creatures. We function best and did a much better job surviving in groups as opposed to going it alone.  This is why we’re so heavily impacted by the principle of consensus (a.k.a. social proof). It’s natural for us to take our behavioral cues from other people – what they’re thinking, doing or feeling.

It’s a rare person who prefers solitude over multitudes. Sure, there are some people who like to get away from it all on occasion. That might range from 20 minutes of meditation each day, to walks in nature, or solo camping for days or weeks at a time. But very, very few people choose to live in solitude. Why? Because as social creatures being separated from others can be painful.

Robert Cialdini talked about the implications of this when the famous Asch Conformity Experiments were conducted using neuroscience to analyze what was going on inside people’s heads. When we’re at odds with a group it registers in the same brain region where physical pain manifests. I encourage you to take three minutes to watch this video then consider the following situations that have their basis in isolation from groups:

Excommunication from the Church

It used to be that excommunication from “the church” meant separation from God. I’m not sure that’s really the case with institutions run by flawed human beings but certainly excommunication meant no dealings with those who were still part of the church. That would make daily life difficult and lonely because the church dominated daily life in much of the world. And, quite often excommunication meant no more contact with family members lest they be kicked out too.

Solitary Confinement for Prisoners

When prisoners get out of line quite often their punishment is complete isolation from other prisoners. According to a PBS report, “When corrections officials talk about solitary confinement, they describe it as the prison within the prison, and for good reason. For 23 hours a day, inmates are kept inside a cell that is approximately 80 square feet, smaller than a typical horse stable.”  The article goes on to say, “solitary can cause a specific psychiatric syndrome, characterized by hallucinations; panic attacks; overt paranoia; diminished impulse control; hypersensitivity to external stimuli; and difficulties with thinking, concentration and memory.”

Rejection from a Group

Whether it’s failure to make the sports team, get into a fraternity or sorority, dishonorable discharge from the military, or losing a job, rejection from a group hurts. The ramifications may not be as serious as solitary confinement but it can still have negative personal and social consequences. While some people can turn that negative into a positive (Michael Jordan got cut from his high school basketball team but went on to great things in the NBA) most people do not.

What are you to do with all this? Two things come to mind:

  1. If you have kids, teach them about the consequences of isolation. Encourage them to be the person who, when they observe another child who is struggling with friendships, to extend their hand in friendship. This could be a first step in stopping bullying and future school violence.
  2. When you notice someone who appears to be a loner, you too can extend a friendly hand. Everyone has good traits and talents, and your friendship offer might be what unlocks that in another human being.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. His Lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed nearly 150,000 times! The course teaches you how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process. Not watched it yet? Click here to see what you’ve been missing.

What Would You Do?


At the last supper the apostle Peter said to
Jesus, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” Jesus told
him, “I tell you the truth. This very night, before the rooster crows, you will
disown me three times.” Peter protested, “Even if I have to die with you, I
will never disown you.” And the rest is history – Peter did deny the Lord three
times before sunrise.
I love that story because it reveals Peter’s
humanity and ultimately the forgiveness of Jesus. I also believe it tells us
something about each of us as individuals – we never really know how we will
act until a situation is upon us.
I believe Peter meant what he said with all of
his heart. To his credit he was ready to die for the Lord when he drew his
sword and cut off the Roman slave’s ear. However, he wasn’t ready when the
situation changed slightly. In the early morning in the courtyard outside the
temple when he was under no physical threat he denied knowing Jesus when asked
directly three times.
Quite often we “think” we know what we’d do in
a situation. We would never participate in the holocaust; we would have done
something about Jerry Sandusky had we been at Penn State; we would not have
participated in segregation in the South even if we had grown up there. Then
social psychology comes along and bursts our bubble with experiments that show
us otherwise. For example:
We believe we could resist the pressure to conform (consensus) if we knew we were
right. That’s what people assumed going into the Asch conformity experiments in the 1950s. And
yet, an amazing number gave into the crowd and went along with them even though
their senses told them they were correct, not the crowd.
Most of you reading this believe you’d never
harm another person just because an authority insists that you do
so. The participants in Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment in 1961 probably
thought the same thing going into the experiment. However, two-thirds
eventually gave a series of 30 shocks with the last being 450 volts!
The college students in the 1971 Stanford prison experiment probably thought
they’d never behave sadistically when acting as prison guards just because of the environment. After all, the late ‘60s
and early ‘70s were known for young people railing against the establishment,
not conforming to it. In reality the students were so sadistic the two-week
experiment was halted after just six days!
When it comes to how we’ll react in stressful
situations we often overestimate our goodness and underestimate the impact of
people in positions of authority, the environment we’re in, and the pressure we
feel from others to conform.
Not everyone gave in during those experiments
and maybe, just maybe, you’d be one of those who would have resisted. However,
most people did give in so we’d be a little arrogant to just assume we’re so
different than those ordinary people that we’d always do the right thing.
So what’s a person to do? Peter tried relying
on his willpower and we know how that turned out. Heck, he was even told
explicitly what he’d do and that wasn’t enough for him to catch himself and
make a different choice.
Wouldn’t it be better to understand how people
typically think and behave? If you have that understanding it can create the
self-awareness you might need to make a better choice should you find yourself
in a situation where you know the right thing to do but feel paralyzed by fear.
That fear can be rejection from the crowd, retribution from the authority or
the feeling of powerlessness in the situation.
This is where social psychology comes in handy
because quite often our hunches about human behavior are incorrect. Dan Ariely
wrote two books about this very subject; Predictably
and The Upside of
. I encourage you to keep checking in with Influence PEOPLE
each week. An investment of five minutes might be all it takes for you to catch
yourself and make a better choice than Peter did and most people in the
experiments I mentioned.

** To vote for Robert Cialdini, President of Influence At Work, for the Top Management Thinker of 2013 click here.
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Chief Influence Officer
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.