When the test subject entered our laboratory, he saw several coats on hangers and immediately got the impression that others were present. He was taken to one of six closed booths, where he was provided with headphones and a microphone. As he listened to the instructions through the headphones he overheard the voices of the other "subjects" and assumed that all the booths were occupied. During the actual experiment he would hear five taped answers before he was asked to give his own.
Except when we made a technical slip the subject never caught on to the trick. Most subjects became deeply involved in the situation, and strong tensions were generated when they realized they must stand alone against five unanimous opponents. This situation created a genuine and deeply felt conflict that had to be resolved either through independence or conformity.
Once we had refined our techniques at Harvard University we were ready to experiment abroad with Norwegian and French subjects. In which of the two national environments would people go along with the group more and in which would there be greater independence?
Most of the subjects used in the Norwegian study were students attending the University of Oslo. Because this is the only full-fledged university in Norway, a good geographic representation was obtained. Our test sample included students from beyond the Arctic Circle, from the fiord country of western Norway and from Trondheim, the former Viking capital.
When the study moved to Paris, French students were selected who matched the Norwegians in age, level of education, fields of study, sex, marital status and-so far as possible-social class. Once again a good geographic distribution was obtained, because students from all parts of France came to study in Paris. A few of the French subjects came from French North African cities. Those used in the experiment were culturally as French as people living on the mainland; they were of French parentage and had been educated in French lycees.
In Norway the entire experiment was conducted by a native Norwegian and all the recorded voices were those of natives. In France the experiments were conducted by native Frenchmen. Much effort was made to match the tone and quality of the Norwegian and French groups. We made many recordings until people who were sensitive to the nuances of both languages were satisfied that equivalent group atmospheres had been achieved.
Twenty Norwegian subjects and the same number of French subjects were studied in the first set of experiments. The Norwegian subjects conformed to the group on 62 per cent of the critical trials (that is, trials in which the group deliberately voted wrong); the French subjects conformed to the group on 50 per cent of the critical trials.
After each subject had taken part in the experiment he was told its true character and was asked to give his reactions. Almost all participants in both countries had accepted the experiment at face value and admitted feeling the strong pressure of the group. A Norwegian student from a farm in Nordland, above the Arctic Circle, said: "I think the experiment had a very ingenious arrangement. I had no idea about the setup until it was explained to me. Of course, it was a little embarrassing to be exposed in such a way." A self-critical student from Oslo remarked: "It was a real trick and I was stupid to have fallen into the trap....It must be fun to study psychology." Similar reactions were obtained in France, where students were impressed with the idea of psychological experimentation. (In neither country is psychological research as widespread or as intensive as it is in the U.S., so that subjects are relatively unsophisticated about psychological deceptions.)
It would have been superficial, of course, to conduct just one experiment in Norway, another in France and then draw conclusions. In a second experiment we undertook to change the subject's attitude toward the importance of the experiment itself to see if this might alter the original findings. In this new series of trials (and in all subsequent ones) the subjects were told that the results of the experiments would be applied to the design of aircraft safety signals. In this way their performance was linked to a life-and-death issue. As one might have predicted, the subjects this time showed somewhat greater independence of the group, but once again the level of conformity was higher in Norway (56 per cent) than it was in France (48 per cent).