Is reality a social construct? A famous psychology study, Sherif’s autokinetic effect experiment, done in the mid-nineteen-thirties, seemed to say it can be. Conformity to the opinions of others guides personal judgments when information is scant.
Muzafer Sharif was one of the founders of social psychology. He performed ground-breaking experiments that explored the effect of group interaction on personal perception. Among his earliest explorations were his autokinetic effect experiments.
The autokinetic effect can be observed by anyone with a flashlight and some duct tape. In perfect darkness, a dot of light projected on a wall will appear to move, even though it is completely stationary. This motion is an illusion, that is, the mind creates it, not anything the eyes see.
Without any reference point, the brain cannot tell what the point of light is doing. Perhaps the brain assigns movement to the light because movement is a more common and useful phenomenon in the physical world. For whatever reason, the majority of people will see the stationary light move.
Since the light does not actually move though, its movement cannot be measured. The movement is completely subjective, and varies from person to person. Dr. Sharif used this fact as the basis of experiments about conformity.
In one experiment, researchers showed the apparently moving light to solitary subjects, repeatedly. Over time, each subject came to a decision about how much the light moved. Once they had settled on a distance, Dr. Sharif moved on to the next part of this experiment.
He put groups of people who believed the light had moved varying distances in the dark room together. Over time, the subjects tended to move towards a compromise about the distance the light had moved. They changed their judgments about the movement of the light to more closely harmonize with the perceptions of those around them.
When he asked subjects if they had been influenced, though, most of them denied it. Each believed that he or she was making an objective decision. However, when they were shown the light again, in solitude, their estimate now tended to be the compromise the group had arrived at, or closer to it than their original evaluation had been.
The subjects conformed to group norms, often without even realizing it. Group norms were established by finding an intermediate position, with the extreme positions moving toward the middle.
Through many trials, Dr. Sharif tested subjects in groups and alone, in various combinations and orders. They retained the group evaluation of what they had seen as fact, even when the group was not around to exert influence. To Dr. Sharif, this was evidence of the power of conformity. Humans are social beings, each conforming to the group opinion, though it has no more objective reality than his or her own.