Conformity: Why Everything Popular is Wrong

We have a tendency to conform to the popular view of the herd rather than resist—even when the herd’s view is clearly absurd.

Solomon Asch did a series of experiments in the 1950s around this. In all his experiments, Asch asked subjects to make judgments about various visual exhibits. All but one of the “subjects” in each group were actors working for Asch. The actors intentionally said the wrong thing, with dramatic impact on the one real subject.

In one, the subject was shown a line drawn on a card. He was asked to identify a line of the same length among three lines drawn on another card. The actors were instructed to say aloud the wrong answer. Although the answer was obvious, a shocking number of the subjects gave the incorrect answer to conform with the others in the room.

In another, a subject walked into an elevator with a group of actors who immediately turned and faced the back of the elevator. What do you think the subject did?

All of Asch’s experiments put the subject in a tough spot where they have to choose between the evidence of their senses and the unanimous opinion of the group—two very strong forces.

No matter how rational you are, consensus is hard to resist. Even if you choose to stick to your guns in the beginning, you are bound to capitulate at the end. It’s hard to look like a bozo for a long time, especially when you are the only bozo in the elevator.

The subjects of Asch’s experiment may look stupid to you, but when you are in the thick of things, the sane subject looks more stupid. Let me elaborate with an example.

Imagine it’s 1999 amidst the IPO frenzy. Every other minute a new company is going public. The guy next to you tells you about an IPO he’s buying. He thinks you should come aboard as well. He doesn’t know what the company does but a close friend told him it’s going to double on the day of issue. That’s ridiculous, you think. So you pass. A week later he comes back. Turns out it didn’t double… it tripled. He still doesn’t know what the company does.

A few more of these, and it gets hard to stick to cold rational when irrational exuberance seems to be getting everybody rich while you are the only (financially) poor bozo.

Finally you say, “To hell with it! I’m in.” Suddenly, you are accepted into the community. You are not an outcast anymore. Yes, tomorrow all of you are going to lose all the money when the bubble bursts, but hey, at least you aren’t the only loser. The sting of loss isn’t that strong when the whole team loses. All of you have each other’s shoulders to cry on to.

Greed, excitement, illogicality, suspension of disbelief and ignoring intrinsic value of a company cost people a lot of money in the tech bubble. While a lot of brilliant and disciplined value investors—who didn’t conform to the consensus—looked dumb in the months and years before the bubble burst. All of them had a thorough understanding of the insidious effects of cognitive biases in decision making. Therefore they could avoid it.

The true value of a good decision can only be derived in the future. But the rationality of a decision should be judged then and there.

Be rational. Don’t deceit yourself. Accept that you don’t know everything, and do the best with what you have. As long as you don’t bet everything on one decision, you always have the option to learn and move on in case things don’t go your way. It’s okay to lose in the short term (we all do) as long as you are not losing in the long term.

I hate consensus! Decision making is not easy. You are never completely sure if you are taking the right steps. But one thing is certain: it’s foolish to go with the consensus. Always!

Have a strong rationale. Stick to your guns. Don’t get into a game unless you have either a strong opinion, a unique perspective, or a different angle. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger didn’t get into the tech bubble. They accepted they didn’t understand tech enough to bet on it. They knew their limitations.

Never put yourself in a position where following the crowd is your only viable strategy. Consensus is based on popular belief. As Oscar Wilde remarked, “Everything popular is wrong.”

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