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senior lecturer University of Birmingham School of Psychology.


It is tempting to suggest that the advent of technology to peer directly at the working human brain, especially functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), is the most important innovation of psychological science. Psychology is a young science and many argue that it should not be classified as a science at all; fMRI provides a seemingly undeniable hi-tech rebuttal to such nay-sayers.

Unfortunately, fMRI is really an innovation in physics, and perhaps more importantly, peering at the human brain, by itself, doesn’t actually tell us anything about psychology. So I plump for the development of procedures to illustrate conformity. In 1958, Solomon Asch demonstrated that when asked how long is a piece of string, most people will state that the piece of string is as long as everyone else says it is, even when it is evidently shorter or longer. In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram demonstrated that ordinary people will shock to death a man they just met because a scientist tells them to.

More recently, Elizabeth Loftus has demonstrated that asking a witness questions such as, ‘How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?’, will produce answers that conform with the structure of the question rather than the structure of events. These psychological experiments reveal an important lesson: often it is not so much the personality of individuals which matters as the circumstances in which they are placed and the manner in which information is delivered or requested that determine behaviour.