Re-visiting the Asch Effect


I have encountered this piece of research many times before and it never ceases to amaze me. What you can see in this short video is a demonstration of the Asch Effect:

When surrounded by individuals all voicing an incorrect answer, participants provided incorrect responses on a high proportion of the questions (32%). Seventy-five percent of the participants gave an incorrect answer to at least one question.

The Asch Effect is a well-known phenomenon that almost everybody experiences. I am sure each and every one of you has been in some situation where he didn’t say what he really thought because of the group. I am sure many of you changed their opinions depending on what they heard from others. And still, we conduct meetings and lead teams like this is not an issue we have to deal with.

We can all agree that some of the best ideas are those that are different, unique and will be regarded by our close team as just wrong. If you are thinking of something new and unfamiliar, it will be answered with resistance. The great breakthroughs don’t come out of best practices. They come out of inventing something totally new. However, as Hugh MacLeod correctly points out in Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity:

The better the idea, the more “out there” it initially will seem to other people… Good ideas alter the power balance in relationships. That is why good ideas are always initially resisted.

Luckily, the solution is in our hands. Until today, when I studied about the Asch Effect, I was not fully aware of this point:

When the confederates are not unanimous in their judgment, even if only 1 confederate voices a different opinion, participants are much more likely to resist the urge to conform than when the confederates all agree. This finding illuminates the power that even a small dissenting minority can have. Interestingly, this finding holds whether or not the dissenting confederate gives the correct answer. As long as the dissenting confederate gives an answer that is different from the majority, participants are more likely to give the correct answer.

As usual, the answer can be found in the process. First, we need to try to create a way where everybody submits their ideas or judgments without hearing everybody else’s answers. The default of going around the table and hearing everybody turns out to be a terrible default. Second, more importantly, always appoint a devil’s advocate. Especially, when there seems to be a consensus.  Somebody who will voice concerns and raise important issues, even if they are false, just to elicit more ideas from the rest of the team and to overcome the Asch Effect. Third, use change in management. Change orders, places and roles within your meeting. Not only it will prevent from one person to always hear the rest of the people talk, it will also prevent stagnation in the norms and will elicit more creativity. Brain research has shown that just by changing the environment, even in small scales, our brain must react with more thinking.

We can overcome the Asch Effect. But we must try very hard not to forget it.