© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

The power of two

A few days ago, Erin, my eighth-grader, made me incredibly proud. That alone is not news — she continually emits a parental pride induction field, that girl. But in this case she showed a bit of courage in someone else’s defense, and when that happens, my shirt buttons grab their crash helmets and wince.

Erin walked into my upstairs office after school. “Guess what happened today.”

I gave up.

“I was at the table in the cafeteria with these three other kids, and two of them asked the other girl where she went to church. She said ‘We don’t go to church,’ and their eyes got big, and the one guy leaned forward and said, ‘But you believe in God, right?'”

Ooooh, here we go. I shifted in my seat.

“So the girl says, ‘Not really, no.’ And their eyes got all [!!!] and they said, ‘Well what DO you believe in then??’ And she said, ‘I believe in the universe.’ And they said, ‘So you’re like an atheist?’ And she said ‘Yes, I guess I am.'”

I looked around for popcorn and a five-dollar Coke. Nothing. “Then what??”

“Then they turned to meee…and they said, ‘What about YOU? What do YOU believe?'” Another pause. “And I said, ‘Well…I’m an atheist too. An atheist and a humanist.'”

She’s thirteen now, old enough to try on labels, as long as she keeps thinking. She knows that. And she’s recently decided that her current thoughts add up to an atheist and a humanist.

“And I looked at the other girl, and…like this wave of total relief comes over her face.”

Oh my. What a thing that is. “Erin that’s so great. Just imagine how she would have felt if you weren’t there!!”

“Yeah, I know!!”

I’ll tell you who else knows — Solomon Asch:

The Asch experiment is one of the great studies in conformity. And when individuals were tested separately without group consensus pressures, fewer than 1 percent made any errors at all. The lesson of Solomon Asch is that most people at least some of the time will defy the clear evidence of their own senses or reason to follow the herd.

One variation in the design of the study provides a profound lesson about dissent. This is the one that Erin’s situation reminded me of. And it’s a crucial bit of knowledge for any parent wishing to raise an independent thinker and courageous dissenter.

In this version, all of the researcher’s confederates would give the wrong answer but one. In these cases, the presence of just one other person who saw the evidence as the real subject did reduced the error rates of subjects by 75 percent. This is a crucial realization: if a group is embarking on a bad course of action, a lone dissenter may turn it around by energizing ambivalent group members to join the dissent instead of following the crowd into error. Just one other person resisting the norm can help others with a minority opinion find their voices.

Had the other girl not mustered the courage to self-identify first as an atheist, Erin would have been statistically less likely to share her own non-majority view. Once the girl spoke up, Erin’s ability to join the dissent went up about 75 percent. And once Erin shared the same view, the other girl enjoyed a wave of retroactive relief at not being alone.

The other two kids also won a parting gift. They learned that the assumed default doesn’t always hold, and that the world still spins despite the presence of difference. They’re also likely to be less afraid and less astonished the next time they learn that someone doesn’t believe as they do, which can also translate into greater tolerance of all kinds of difference.

Uniformity of all kinds is almost always an illusion. And when it falls apart, there’s a whole lot of winning going on.

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This was written on Friday, 02. September 2011 at 21:35 and was filed under Atlanta, belief and believers, diversity, fear, My kids, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting, Raising Freethinkers, schools, values. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Thank you so much for sharing this story. Last year my (then) six-year-old was sitting with a group of kids from his class at lunch. His best friend was asking everyone if they believed in god. All the other children said yes, but my son said no. His best friend told him, “If you don’t believe in god, you’re off the team.” So my son said he did and received affirmation from everyone that now he was “in” again. Stories like yours give me hope that this type of interaction won’t always be what he experiences.

    Comment: mashairi – 03. September 2011 @ 7:27 am

  2. All these years and now I learn it was the Asch experiment in which I was a subject!

    In 9th grade the teacher passed around a sheet of paper with three lines on it, two of which were clearly of identical length, and one of which differed. As it moved around the room, each student identified aloud which line differed from the other two. This experiment, nearly identical to the one depicted in the above Youtube clip, was repeated three times.

    The first two times I was the ONLY person who stated accurately which line was unique. The third time ALL students answered incorrectly. I caved.

    As it turned out, two of us were unknowing subjects. The other subject, who was a bit of a wallflower, went with the crowd every time. I (who was voted class clown that year, demonstrating, perhaps, a willingness to differ) conformed with the mob (can I use that word?) on the final trial. This formative lesson has stayed with me for life. (Although, truth be told, I still–occasionally at least–repeat the mistake.)

    Thanks for finally identifying the source of this experiment! And kudos to Erin.

    Comment: Ken from NJ – 03. September 2011 @ 8:25 am

  3. What a great kid, and thanks for the psych lesson too!

    Comment: jfinite – 03. September 2011 @ 1:46 pm

  4. I love these stories you share about how proud you are of your kids and how awesome they are.

    Comment: gordongoblin – 04. September 2011 @ 5:21 am

  5. Noteworthy article on a brain study on this topic (Jan 2009): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8739376/Scientists-find-they-can-control-how-people-react-to-group-pressure.html.

    The original study is here (151 page PDF; the Asch study is mentioned in the second paragraph of the Introduction): http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=MImg&_imagekey=B6WSS-4VCGY7D-G-1&_cdi=7054&_user=10&_pii=S0896627308010209&_origin=gateway&_coverDate=01%2F15%2F2009&_sk=%23TOC%237054%232009%23999389998%23839050%23FLA%23display%23Volume_61,_Issue_1,_Pages_1-152_(15_January_2009)%23tagged%23Volume%23first%3D61%23Issue%23first%3D1%23date%23(15_January_2009)%23&view=c&_gw=y&wchp=dGLbVlz-zSkzV&md5=c74dcc5df574119345dae3283c874dc0&ie=/sdarticle.pdf

    Comment: Ken from NJ – 05. September 2011 @ 6:38 am

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