Rebels with a Cause
Beginning in 1951, Solomon Asch, a Gestalt psychologist and pioneer in social psychology, devised a series of experiments to examine the extent to which pressure from other people could affect a person’s judgment. Groups of seven to nine individuals were gathered in a classroom to participate in what they were told was an experiment in visual discrimination. They were asked to match the length of one line with three other lines. Each group did 18 comparisons, giving their answers out loud. The crux of the experiment was that only one of the participants was the real subject of the study, the others were part of the study and were told in advance whether to unanimously give the correct or incorrect answer. The real subjects always gave their answer last or close to last.
The results of the experiments revealed that on average, roughly one third of the subjects conformed to the “fake” participants, even when the answers the study participatns gave were clearly wrong. In the control group, participants wrote down their answers and were free from the experience of sharing their responses in front of the group. The control group gave the correct answer 98 percent of the time. The discrepancy between the research subjects’ accuracy and the control groups’ accuracy in giving the correct answer had to do with the group experience not that they could not accurately assess similar lengths of lines.
Subjects who conformed were asked questions after the experiment. The reasons they gave for their conformity fit into two reasons. One was that they wanted to fit in with the group and to be liked and accepted. Subjects knew that the group was giving the wrong answer, but they did not want to risk being rejected. This is called “normative influence.” The other reason was that many of the participants doubted themselves, decided that they must be wrong and the confederates were correct and better informed. This is called “informational influence.”
Conformity can be helpful for a society to run smoothly. However, conformity also facilitates harmful social norms such as slavery, racism, sexism, heterosexism, or any of the other prejudices sanctioned by the dominant group. If it is so difficult for people to go against social pressure when the disagreement is a basic fact of line length, we can only imagine how much harder it is to go against the grain when more intangible aspects are involved, as it is for social justice issues.
Because it is quite difficult for someone from the dominant group to step outside his or her social norms and decide that present day mores do not fit with his or her values of compassion or justice, when someone does, it is a cause for celebration and quite a feat of courage. The difficulty in going against the majority may explain why socially progressive movements are often initiated and generated by a small group of dedicated people.
A prejudice that not many people are familiar with is called “speciesism.” Richard Ryder, a psychologist, coined the term speciesism in 1970 to refer to the prejudicial belief that humans are exceptional, or so superior to other animals who are not human that we can use them as we wish. As with other prejudices, like racism or sexism, the treatment of an individual is determined by their membership within a particular group.
Speciesism is what allows us to share our homes with dogs and cats, but eat pigs, cows, and chickens. Marc Bekoff, cognitive ethologist and author of The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy – and Why They Matter, explains, animals who some people eat “are like our companion animals, and have feelings, experience pain, care about their friends and family, and are aware of what is happening to them and around them” (personal communication, July 2, 2014).
Speciesism allows us to not question or allows us to dismiss as “normal” what happens to sentient beings for us to buy ice cream, leather chairs, and fur-lined coats, or make scrambled eggs. Speciesism allows us to steal wild animals from their homes and families and imprison them for our entertainment in zoos, circuses, or theme parks. Speciesism allows us to see and participate in hunting and fishing as sport. Speciesism allows us to restrain rabbits in tiny boxes and abuse them for product testing.
Prejudices and oppression are stories society tells itself. During the time of the slave trade, most people in society believed that enslaved people had less inherent value than their owners. Enslaved people were considered mere things with no rights. For most of us today, it is hard to imagine that such a morally bankrupt belief system could be the underpinning of social norms.
Speciesism is another story society tells itself. In the narrative of speciesism, despite being the same in the ways that matter most (having feelings, being aware of what is happening to them and around them, caring about their friends and family, wanting to be free from harm, and experiencing pain), humans tell themselves that nonhuman animals have less inherent value and are less deserving to live with bodily integrity, and free from exploitation and human-caused harm. In the eyes of the law, nonhuman animals are considered property, just as slaves were once considered property. Society could tell a different story about who we are to nonhuman animals.
While speciesism prevails, there is a countermeasure – veganism. I use the term “vegan” to refer to a person whose values and choices reflect the ethical belief that no animal, human or nonhuman, deserves to be treated as a commodity and exploited; that all animals deserve the fundamental right to life, liberty and to be free from human-caused harm.
I would guess that if vegans took the Solomon Asch experiment, most, if not all, would be in the group of independent thinkers. Vegans do not conform to speciesism, and generally not to other unjust social pressures. Most vegans have gone through an emotional and thoughtful process to overcome their denial of institutionalized violence toward nonhuman animals (“the other”) and continue to evolve to promote fairness, justice, and peace for all in our world. Vegans tend to be freethinkers.
Do you think being a freethinker is important? Are there times when being a freethinker is a detriment? What are the ways that you are a freethinker? Are there ways you wish you were more of a freethinker?