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  • Maya Floyd

Do your relationships let you exist?

In the 1950s American social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted what would become his famous experiment on conformity. This classic experiment has been the staple of studies in social psychology, and shows that two thirds of us will eventually, if not immediately, conform to the social pressure of the others’ opinion in certain circumstances, even when we see the other as being plainly wrong.

Imagine you are asked to go into a room and sit around the table with 6-8 other people who are somewhat familiar to you*. The person in charge shows you two cards: one with a vertical black line on it, and the other with three vertical black lines, in varying lengths. All you have to do is say which of the three lines matches the line on the first card. The differences in length are not difficult to observe, making the correct answer obvious.

All of the other people in the room are part of the experiment, except you, the participant being tested: will you conform to the group’s obviously incorrect answer? As the participants are being asked to give the answer, they all give an incorrect one. Trial after trial, everyone has a different answer to yours. Would you eventually change your answer? Or would you keep being ‘in the wrong’? Would you disagree with everyone else and speak from the evidence of your own senses, while not understanding why everyone got it so wrong?

Solomon was interested in finding out whether the group can influence the individual to speak against their own perception, in fact, to deny the evidence of their own eyes. He, and replications of this experiment have found that about a third of us withstand the social pressure and stay with our own perception, about 5% immediately go along with the group. The remainder eventually give in and in the face of repeatedly being indirectly told that they are ‘wrong’, they abandon their position and begin to go along with the group’s obviously incorrect answer. It is this cohort of participants who also report the most distress at their experience of the experiment.

Photographic evidence of the experiments shows the participants doubting their experience: leaning forward to examine the easily distinguished lines more closely, taking off their glasses, or frowning. One participant was deeply upset; after ten others said that the 4 inch line was longer than the 5.5 inch line she “jumped to the front of the class, grabbed a ruler and measured and said: “See!”, and the others…[said] “of course not”. She then went on to say: “something must be wrong with me, maybe it’s my vision, maybe it’s something more fundamental”.

Today, we understand this negation of experience as psychological violence of gaslighting. Why is it so damaging? Conformity is not necessarily distressing, and neither is disagreeing with others. What emerged as most distressing for the participants in the experiment was the act of self-abandonment or self-betrayal. They were most distressed by the knowledge that they spoke against what they knew to be true. But what choice did they have?

This distress and pain of abandoning their experience were strongest just before they conformed or just before they chose not to conform. It is this moment, in which we feel our difference from the other and the choice that it presents, that brings distress. Do we abandon our self so as to conform and find safety in the group, or do we stand by our convictions and feel the unbridgeable difference from the other? Both choices bring us face to face with our aloneness. We realise that either choice means that we are not seen. Our very existence is negated in that moment. That is why the distress is so strong. So how do we manage this relational experience in everyday life?

I would argue, that we each have a level of tolerance for relationships that ask us for this type of self-erasure or isolation. Yes, we can do it, BUT only in certain contexts, and only IF the remainder of our life can absorb this act, and we have other relationships that allow us to be just as we are. We can tolerate non-existence at times, because we are alive and thriving in other social contexts.

This aspect of Solomon’s research is the one that remains the most relevant. We do not betray ourselves and the evidence of our own eyes in isolation; we must be influenced by others to commit such an act of self-betrayal. We do not experience pain of non-existence in isolation; we must be ‘unseen’ or dismissed by others to feel the distress and panic of aloneness. Solomon emphasised this understanding of self as a social being whose actions (and experience) are always in relationship to those around them when he said that "Most social acts have to be understood in their setting and lose meaning if isolated. No error in thinking about social facts is more serious than the failure to see their place and function" (Asch, 1952, p. 61).

Think about those relationships that ask of you to tolerate the pain of not being seen, heard, validated, or accepted in your ‘otherness’ even if they don’t quite understand what that is. Who are those people who repeatedly ask you to engage in self-abandonment, just so they can feel their reality is ‘correct’? The friendships, marriages, workplaces, institutions, all the bonds that ask of us to tolerate and excuse their acts of erasing our existence? Where do you no longer wish to tolerate your non-existence? And who do you depend on to validate you, despite all evidence that they cannot or won't?

*the experiments used the student body of the university where Solomon was conducting the research, so the participants were somewhat known to one another, having attended the same classes.

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