You think “gaslighting” someone has anything to do with emotional manipulation?! You are so crazy, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Just kidding! The term gaslight originates from the eponymous 1930s british stage play, in which a husband convinces his wife that she is going mad. Today, the term is used to describe a technique of emotional manipulation in which an individual “gradually undermine[s] the victim’s confidence in his[/her] own ability to distinguish truth from falsehood” (Britannica, 2021). Today we are going to examine the famous experiment of social psychology’s favorite gaslighter, Solomon Asch!
Like many other social psychologists of the mid 20th century, Solomon Asch was captivated by the horrific realities seen during WWII. In an effort to understand the psychological influences behind human behavior, Asch began studying how the social pressures to conform affect how we act (University of Minnesota, 2015). In his famous experiment, groups of college-age men (7-9 at a time) were recruited for an experiment on “visual judgement,” where the participants would examine two pictures: one with a black line that acted as a model, and another with three black lines all of different lengths. In reality, only one of the participants was actually being tested, the rest were “confederates,” meaning that they understood the experiment and had special orders given to them by Asch, unbeknownst to the participant. The goal of the participant was to accurately pick out which line matched the model. During the first two trials, the participant and all of the confederates accurately choose the matching line. During the second two rounds, all of the confederates choose the same incorrect answer and act dubiously toward the participant who picked the different but correct answer. Before each trial ended, each person was asked if they would like to switch their answer or keep it. In total there were 18 trials, 12 of which, the confederates chose the same incorrect answers (Asch, 1955).
Under normal circumstances, participants would only get the answer wrong about 1% of the time, however in Asch’s social pressure paradigm, the participants switched to the incorrect answer 36.8% of the time! His groundbreaking experiment illustrated the influence that our peers can have on our own decisions and perceptions of the world (Asch, 1955). This is a reminder of the power we all hold over the people around us. While social elements may intrinsically link our decision making to each other, it is important to remember that it is a uniquely human phenomenon to trend toward consensus (Mallinson & Hatemi, 2018). Even though this may pose its own issues at times, it’s important to recognize that it is in part, these engrained prosocial behaviors that have allowed humans to become the dominant species on this planet!