The Power of Conformity: Propaganda and Persuasion, Part 2

by Patricia Engler on June 3, 2021
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Is a message true because many people seem to think so? Logic says no, but research shows that popular opinion is incredibly persuasive. Let’s see what a famous series of experiments revealed about the power of peer pressure—and how to resist it.

“I can’t believe there are still people who believe that!”

This was how one of my classmates responded when our professor—a staunch evolutionist—remarked that biblical creationists believe earth is around 6,000 years old. In such classroom settings (not to mention, in today’s culture at large), it can be easy as Bible-believing Christ-followers to feel alone in our convictions. We may begin to wonder, How could the entire crowd be mistaken? I must be the one who believes the wrong message.

However, does the truth of a message depend on the number of people who believe it? No. As this article unpacks, it’s not unusual for many people to believe a false idea. So, claiming that a message is true or false based only on the number of its adherents is a fallacy—a type of faulty logic—called appeal to popularity, or ad populum. The number of people who believe something is irrelevant to whether it’s true.

Even so, majority influence can be incredibly persuasive. We’re socially wired creatures who typically want to follow other people, to be accepted and “liked,” and to avoid any negative consequences that might result from standing out. So, we have a built-in drive to conform. And propagandists know it.

Propaganda and Peer Pressure

As a quick recap from earlier posts, remember that propaganda is communication which tries to persuade based on factors other than logic. To do so, propaganda taps into mental heuristics—shortcuts our brains use to make snap decisions. For example, we use the follow-the-majority heuristic to make decisions based on other people’s behaviors and beliefs.

Copying others’ behaviors can work in many contexts, especially when we’re uncertain about what to do. But because the majority is not always right, overreliance on the follow-the-majority heuristic leads to a cognitive bias (faulty thinking pattern) called the bandwagon effect. Propagandists exploit this effect to persuade us to believe or behave in certain ways because “everybody else is doing it.”

The Science of Conformity

In the 1950s, a series of classic experiments by a psychologist named Solomon Asch showed how far people will bend to conform—even to the point of denying observable reality.1 To see what this research involved, imagine being a college student recruited to participate in “a study about perception.” You sit down at a table with several other young people, who you don’t realize are actors in the study. At the front of the room, a researcher displays two cards with lines drawn on them.

Conformity

Your job is to report which line on the right appears to be the same length as the line on the left. Easy, right?

Everyone takes a turn saying the answer aloud. For the first couple of rounds, everything goes smoothly. In the third round, you can see that the correct answer is line B. But everyone else in the room answers, “Line C!” When your turn arrives, what do you say?

If you’re like many of the students this study tested, you would say “line C” because everybody else did—even though your eyes assure you the answer is B. Three in four students conformed to the majority’s mistaken answer at least once during the experiments, and on average, students’ answers aligned with those of the (incorrect) majority one-third of the time.2 In the words of Solomon Asch, “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 is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct.”3

Fortunately, there’s good news too. Further experiments showed that if just one other person in the room also gave the right answer, conformity rates dropped dramatically.4 In other words, we feel far less obligated to follow the crowd if we’re not resisting peer pressure alone.

Classrooms, Culture, and Conformity

All these findings carry special relevance for Christians in secular classrooms and cultures, where—speaking from experience—we can easily feel isolated in our convictions. The power of consensus helps explain why beliefs like the supposed evolution of all living things from non-living chemicals go largely unquestioned, despite opposing what we know from observational science.5 Students simply tend to accept the mainstream ideas they’re taught, like their professors did before them, and their professors before them. Other studies have also observed this effect, showing that students are far less likely to think critically about arguments that supposedly voice a majority opinion.6 That’s all the more reason to intentionally practice biblical, critical thinking skills instead of automatically siding with the majority opinion.

On the bright side, the finding that one like-minded person’s presence can neutralize peer pressure illustrates the value of knowing that even one other person believes the Bible. It also shows the power of being that one other person.7 All of this highlights the importance of surrounding yourself with solid Christian community, including older mentors—a key theme from my research interviewing Christian university students around the world.

In the end, even if no other human stands with you, know that you’ll never stand for truth alone. Jesus stands with you, for he is the Truth (John 14:6). Unlike humans, God is infallible. And in the words often accredited to 16th-century reformer John Knox, “A man with God is always in the majority.”

Footnotes

  1. Solomon Asch, "Studies of Independence and Conformity: I. A Minority of One Against a Unanimous Majority," Psychological Monographs: General and Applied 70, no. 9 (1956): 1–70.
  2. Asch, “Studies.”
  3. Solomon Asch, "Opinions and Social Pressure," Scientific American 193, no. 5 (1955): 31–35.
  4. William Morris and Robert Miller, "The Effects of Consensus-Breaking and Consensus-Preempting Partners on Reduction of Conformity," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 11, no. 3 (1975): 215–223.
  5. For more information, see https://answersingenesis.org/evolution/ and the associated resources.
  6. E.g., Javier Horcajo, Richard Petty, and Pablo Briñol, "The Effects of Majority Versus Minority Source Status on Persuasion: A Self-Validation Analysis," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 99, no. 3 (2010): 498.
  7. Scriptures for resisting conformity: Romans 12:1; Galatians 1:10; 1 Peter 4:3–5.

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