Asch Experiment and The Writers Workshop

December 4, 2014 at 4:37 am (Uncategorized) (, , , )

I recently saw this video. In the famous Asch experiment, the results suggested that, in groups of over four people, a person would give a wrong answer even when it was clearly wrong, as long as the other people of the group unanimously endorsed it. An interesting exception to this is when someone has to write their answers, even if the rest of the group articulates the same wrong answer, conformity decreases dramatically. This suggests that it is the act of articulating a different opinion to the group that is the source of the pressure. Similarly, when someone else in the group disagrees, the conformity reduces dramatically.

This has interesting implications for workshops. Nearly every workshop I’ve ever attended the professor prefaces the discussion through, either subtly or overtly, letting the class know what s/he thought of the piece. In some cases, a dissenting voice is discouraged or shot down because, once the differing interpretation is presented, the level of agreement about a piece among participants drops considerably.

So, does this mean that a workshop is simply pushing conformity?

Maybe.

According to this website, when someone is higher in status or is perceived to have a greater degree of knowledge, the amount of conformity increases. In other words, if you’re a student in a workshop group and you have a professor you perceive as knowledgable, you’re likely to conform to his opinion on a piece even if you previously held a very different opinion. You’re also likely to conform if you see the group as having high status (for example, an insecure first semester MFA student that is intimidated by her peers).

Bearing that in mind, how effective are workshops, really?

The science really demonstrates that workshops may not be the best format, particularly in tight knit communities where you’re with the same group of people in every class. I’ve written previously on how I think the author should be more involved with the discussion to prevent this sort of groupthink. If you’re fond of the workshop model, this is probably the strongest argument for presenting to diverse workshop groups. In other words, you may be better served by attending various conferences, online communities and continuing education courses rather than joining a small “community of writers” where you’re around the same people semester after semester.

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