In the year 1998, a spray-painted fist on the walls of a city set in motion a revolution that overthrew a despotic regime. The Otpor! Revolution in Serbia was directed against the atrocities committed of the regime under president Slobodan Milošević. A non-violent, civic youth movement, it was fuelled not by strong leaders but by 300 black clenched fists that a bunch of college students spray painted around the town square and on buildings across the city of Belgrade. This fist became the symbol of the revolution, which led to a great change in the fate of the nation.

Over a decade later, in 2010, Egyptian protestors used the same symbol to voice their dissent. An Egyptian newspaper carried on its front page, the picture of a woman holding a poster, displaying the black fist. “The Fist Shakes Cairo!” screamed the headline. Sometimes a handful of people is all that’s needed to bring about a revolution. Change is seldom, if ever, initiated by large masses. It is the small groups of like-minded people that transform society.

There are numerous instances in life when a person might want to change the things he or she sees around them, but cannot find the courage to stand alone. Often, the individual who stands alone gets ridiculed and socially ostracised. At other times, the pressure to conform becomes so tremendous that we end up taking the ‘wrong’ path despite knowing which way is ‘right.’

In an experiment conducted by psychologist Simon Asch, people were given a set of lines and asked to match the two that were of the same length. In the first case, people were asked to take the experiment alone, but in the second case, they were placed in a group and each person’s responses recorded in front of the others. Asch found that, individually, everyone gave the correct answers. But in the group setting, the individual invariably mimicked the group’s response. Now this group had been instructed by the experimenter to deliberately provide the wrong answer. The individual, who had no knowledge of this, would invariably also point to the wrong answer—despite the fact that when questioned separately, the same person provided the correct answer. How did this happen?

Despite knowing the right answer, the individual begins to doubt him-self/herself when faced with a substantial number of people proclaiming the opposite. Sometimes the individual would even know that the group is wrong, but would fear being ridiculed or isolated. 

But then, Asch tried something else. He introduced a ‘single dissenter’ to the group, a person who was instructed to point to the right answer, thereby providing the individual being experimented upon with a kind of ‘support’. And voila! The errors immediately fell drastically from 37 per cent of the time to 5.5 per cent! What this meant was that having even one supporter made the individual feel validated, and encouraged him /her to voice their own opinion, instead of striving to conform.

Merely knowing that one isn’t alone becomes enough to propel people to voice dissenting ideas, to put forth notions that oppose the prevalent voice. It helps people to overcome the fear of being isolated and ridiculed. Knowing you’re not the only resister gives you courage to go against the crowd and make yourself heard. And that is why great changes are brought about by small groups of people.

As anthropologist Margaret Mead put it eloquently: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

Zehra Naqvi