A Famous Experiment That Shows We’re Dangerous Conformists

13 October 2021

8.1 MINS

It’s easy to think that, when the time comes, we will be the ones opposing tyranny or speaking up against injustice. Unfortunately, history demonstrates that we are likely wrong. Statistically, we would be conformists like everybody else.

Christianity Today’s podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is making waves across the Evangelical world. [1]

It’s the tragic tale of a church, Mars Hill (Seattle), which for many years seemed to be doing amazing things for the Kingdom. Thousands were hearing the gospel through the compelling preaching of Mars Hill’s Senior Pastor, Mark Driscoll. People were being saved. Lives were being transformed. The church was growing rapidly.

But below the surface, things weren’t quite right.

Driscoll was loved by many, including people across the world like me. But those closest to him saw another side. According to the podcast, Driscoll was a power-hungry, abusive leader. A narcissist who threw people ‘under the bus’ to get his way.

But sadly, although many people felt that things weren’t quite right in the church’s culture, only a few spoke up (at least initially). [2]

While it’s bad enough hearing about an abusive leader (and a culture that tolerated it), something else in the podcast disturbed me even more.

Here’s What I Found The Most Disturbing

In Episode 6, Podcast host Mike Cosper explains what I found the most troubling. It’s worth quoting him in full:

‘It’s tempting to think if I’d been there, I would have done something different. It’s like that meme that goes around where there’s a crowd of Germans at a shipyard giving the Nazi salute, and one guy slightly turned away refuses. The caption usually says something like ‘when the time comes, be this guy’.

Cosper continues:

His name was August Landmesser, and the mother of his children was Jewish. She would end up being killed in a prison camp, and he would get drafted into the war to go missing in action later. We’d all like to think we’re that guy: that we’d be immune to the excitement of the crowd, the aura of charisma, the sense of movement that mobilizes masses of people.

But there’s a reason he’s alone in that picture.

You have to know there’s something wrong.

You have to know there’s something wrong when your senses and the voices around you and everything life’s already taught you about where to put your faith and trust is pushing the other way.’

You have to know there’s something wrong when your senses and the voices around you are pushing the other way.

And knowing that something is wrong under those circumstances is not easy. For most of us, it’s very difficult to go against the crowd – especially when the stakes are high.

A Famous Experiment That Shows We’re Dangerous Conformists

Cosper’s statement and the experience of Mars Hill – in the failure of people to speak up – is not unusual.

It’s a proven part of our psychology. Researcher Solomon Asch carried out one of the most famous experiments in psychological history. Psychiatrist and author Glynn Harrison explains:

Imagine you are taking part in a psychological experiment. You have been seated at the end of a row of ten people. Each person in line has been tasked with estimating which of three lines on a card placed a few meters away is the closest in length to a line drawn on a second card that sits beside it.

Harrison continues:

At first sight, the task looks pretty simple and straightforward – clearly the correct answer is line number two. As people further up the line start to announce their results, however, to your surprise everybody else is choosing line number one. This is clearly wrong, but you are in a cognitive minority – that is, you hold a belief about the world that is different from everybody else around you.

How likely is it that you would stick to your guns and give the correct answer?’[3]

As Harrison goes on to explain, the subject at the end of the row thinks they’re just one in a row of volunteer subjects. But in fact, they are the only real subject, the stooge of the experiment. All the remaining ‘subjects’ are working with the experimenter, and they have been primed to give wrong answers.

So what happened in the actual experiment? The results are as fascinating as they are disturbing:

  • Three-quarters of the stooge subjects gave the wrong answer on at least one occasion.

  • More than a third gave the wrong answer for more than half the time.

Perhaps even more troubling was the reason the stooges gave wrong answers:

When the stooge subjects were later asked about their motives, some appeared genuinely to believe that their (incorrect) answer had been the correct one; others were confident that the rest of the group were wrong but didn’t want to say so (‘Why should I make waves?’).’

This experiment shows just how hard it is for humans to go against the flow.

If people find it hard to point out the bleeding obvious – which line matches another – in a low-stakes situation, it’s even more challenging in complex situations involving people’s words and behaviour, when the stakes are high (e.g., when you might need to leave your church or your job).

Human beings are dangerous conformists.

The Dangers Of Conformity

As the Mars Hill podcast goes on to explain, when people stay silent, abuse can continue.

This is not merely the case in churches. This is the case in any group of people. Workplaces. Families. Schools. And, of course, in society at large.

Silence enables abuse.

On the flip side, if we do speak up, we can potentially stop the cycle of abuse. We can help stop the carnage and end these damaging situations.

Speaking up is the crucial step toward stopping abuse (in whatever situation it’s found).

How Can We Speak Up When We’re Tempted to Conform?

Going against the flow is never easy.

It’s uncomfortable. It can be painful. You could lose your friends. You could be ostracised from those you hold near and dear (allegedly, this is what happened to several Mars Hill attendees who spoke up against Mark).

Going against the flow in an abusive environment is often costly (which is why so few people do it).

So how can we speak up when we find ourselves in an abusive environment?

The Key To Speaking Up: Having Someone On Our Side

Going back to the above psychology experiment, the researchers noticed something very interesting. As Harrison explains:

Levels of conformity with [the other people in the row] dropped dramatically if subjects were given a ‘partner’ alongside, primed to agree with them, but then rose again if the partner was suddenly called out of the room’.[4]

In other words, when the subject was alone in their decision, they were more likely to conform. But when they felt somebody was on their side, they were more likely to speak up.

Having someone on our side is critical if we’re to stand against dangerous conformity.

And this is where the gospel can be a gamechanger in abusive situations: as God’s people, we do have someone on our side.

While we don’t have someone on our side in the same tangible, bodily, way as per the experiment above, the Lord Jesus is with us spiritually, through the Holy Spirit. Christ Jesus has promised he is with us to the end of the age (Matt 28:20; c.f. Heb 13:5-6). We are united with Christ in a real spiritual way (Col 3:1-5, Eph 2:5-6).

And the Bible points out that His presence with us makes a profound difference when facing opposition.

As it says in Hebrews 13:6,

‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’ [5]

And so, the more we remember that Christ is with us – the all-powerful resurrected Christ – the more likely we’ll go against the flow. And the less we’ll fear man and the consequences of pushing back against abusers.

(Of course, Christians can forget that Christ is with us, or minimise it, which means we’re more likely to conform, and less likely to speak out).

So, if the key to speaking up is to remember that Christ Jesus is with us, what else can we do if we find ourselves in an abusive environment – whether a church or otherwise?

Three Other Things That Can Help

1) Don’t Put Your Leaders On a Pedestal

Remember, they are also fallen.

A healthy understanding of human sinfulness will keep us from putting our leaders on a pedestal. (And if you are a leader, the doctrine of human sinfulness will help keep you from thinking more of yourself than you ought).

No leader – nobody – is beyond sin, including the sin of abuse.

That’s not to say they are or necessarily will be abusive: instead, it’s to say they are capable of it. And so, we shouldn’t be naive or discount it as impossible. In the case of church, we should help our leaders in this area by ‘fighting for them’: by praying for them, encouraging them in their godliness, and ensuring they have support and accountability.[6]

Furthermore, if we remember our leaders are fallen, we’ll be less enamoured by the glow of success and celebrity.

We won’t put our ultimate faith in them (we’ll reserve that for Jesus alone). And, in the worst-case scenario, we’ll be more prepared to ask the hard questions if we see them doing things that are concerning.

2) Understand The Cycle of Abuse

If we’re going to be prepared to stand up to abuse, it will help if we understand what an abusive environment, and an abusive leader, looks like. Pastor Wade Mullen’s recent book ‘Somethings Not Right: Decoding The Hidden Tactics of Abuse’ is an excellent place to start.

3) Cultivate Friendships Outside Your ‘System’

It’s not easy to go against the flow when everybody around you in the ‘system’ (e.g. church, workplace, family, etc) is swimming with it. That’s why it’s so helpful to cultivate friendships outside your system. Having an outside set of ears allows you to talk about your situation with someone more impartial. It can sometimes take an outsider to realise (or confirm) there is a problem in your system.

The Challenge For Each Of Us

There are lots of troubling things I’ve heard on CT’s Mars Hill podcast: Driscoll’s abusive leadership, people being shunned from the church for speaking up, and more.

But the most troubling thing I heard is not the sin of others: it’s the potential of my own sin. The possibility – nay probability – of staying silent when I should speak up.

And so, this podcast raises a challenge for all of us:

If we ever find ourselves in an abusive situation, will we look to Christ, and care for others as He cared for us?

Or will we remain silent?



[1] There’s an important conversation to be had about why this podcast is making waves (e.g. why are we so enamoured by this tale of failure?), and the unintended consequences of such podcasts. See, for example, The Rise and Fall of The Mars Hill Podcast Listener by Pastor Rory Shiner. I don’t deal with this question in my post, as I think the podcast does succeed in raising some important issues for churches.

[2] In the end, Driscoll was confronted, and ended up leaving. But that was in 2014, whereas the problems had been going on for over a decade.

[3] Glynn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex & Human Flourishing (London, IVP: 2017), 68-70. While the experiment took place in 1950, it’s worth noting what else Psychiatrist Glynn Harrison says about it: ‘[A] meta-analysis of similar studies on social conformity […] confirmed that Asch’s findings were robust. However, rates of social conformity appear to have declined in the West (compared with other societies) over the past half century’. Harrison, A Better Story, 70 (footnote 2).

[4] Harrison, A Better Story, 70. Emphasis added.

[5] The common refrain throughout the Bible is that God is with us (God’s people), therefore we don’t need to be afraid of man, e.g. Psalm 23, 46; Rom 8:31 etc. Furthermore, we can take courage from the example of the ‘cloud of witnesses’ – who went against the flow for God’s sake, and suffered for it (Heb 11:36-38). We are in their company when we speak up against evil, even though it might cost us dearly in this life.

[6] Services like ‘Ministry Supervision’, and mentoring from organisations like Reach Australia are of enormous help in this area.


Originally published on Image by Unknown author on Wikimedia Commons.

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