Real Studies: Asch (1951-1956) Conformity Experiments.
Nobody wants to believe that they’re susceptible to conforming to the behaviour of others. We have our own minds, our own will, and hate thinking that anything else has an influence over that. It is certainly not that case, however, according to vast amounts of research into the area.
Perhaps one of the most influential studies into the field of majority influence is that of Asch. He conducted a number of experiments throughout the 1950’s aiming to test just how easily people are willing to conform when pressured by a majority. His results were important not just in minority influences, but also group interaction. So, what did he do and what were the results?
Participants believed they were participating in a visual discrimination task. It sounded simple enough; they were told they needed to sit in small groups (of between 7-9 other participants) and publicly declare which of three ‘comparison’ lines matched the ‘standard line’ (see fig. 1). Everyone took turns to say whether line A, B or C matched the standard line.
In reality, there was only one participant at a time – the other 7-9 people were confederates working for the experimenter. The real (aka naive) participant had no idea everyone else was a stooge, and was always placed so that he answered second to last. There were a total of eighteen trials, all consisting of different line lengths.
The other confederates were asked to pick incorrect answers for 12 of the 18 trials. On 6 of them, they would pick a line too short and on the other 6 they would pick a line too long. For the remaining 6 trials, they were asked to pick the correct answer. There was also a control condition, where participants completed the task on their own with no group influence. Less than 1% of participants made genuine errors in the control condition, so it was assumed that the task was unambiguous.
Results for the non-control condition.
Although the results were not massively shocking, they were interesting and definitely showed conformity in some cases:
- 25% of participants refused to conform on any trial and provided correct answers on all 18 trials.
- 50% of participants conformed on at least six trials and provided incorrect answers on them; correct answers were provided on the other trials.
- 5% conformed to all erroneous trials – therefore providing 12 incorrect answers and 6 correct ones.
The average conformity rate was 33% across all trials (the total number of times participants conformed divided by the number of participants x the number of trials.)
After the experiment
Asch asked participants why they conformed to the incorrect majority. All participants reported feeling uncertainty and doubt as a result of the differing opinions of themselves and the group. The majority of participants admitted knowing that they saw the lines differently to the group but thought they may have been perceiving it wrong, and the group must have been right. Others did not want to stand out or look “stupid”, so just went along to avoid any conflict. A small minority reported actually seeing the lines as the group did.
It seems therefore that we conform to avoid ridicule and social disapproval. Nobody wants to be the only person to voice a different answer or opinion.
Alterations upon the above experiment.
In 1951, before the above had taken place, Asch conducted exactly the same experiment, but with 16 naive participants and only 1 confederate. When he gave incorrect answers, the other participants openly humiliated him and laughed at him. The experimenter found the situation so odd, that even he joined in at laughing at the confederate!
It seems therefore, that social ridicule is a major reason for conformity. Asch tested this by asking the 7-9 confederates to publicly declare their answers, but the naive participant to write their answer down privately on paper. Conformity dropped to just 12.5%, suggesting that there was no longer a fear of social disapproval.
Deutsch and Gerard (1955) further altered Asch’s original experiment, finding that when group pressure is low and the lines are quite ambiguous (it was hard to get the right answer), conformity reduced. Some participants were allowed to keep the stimuli when making decisions, and others had the lines removed so they couldn’t see them. When they had no stimuli present, and hence had reason to be uncertain – conformity dropped even more. However, 23% of participants still conformed when they could see the stimulus and answered privately!
It can therefore be seen that even in unambiguous tasks, the pressure to conform is very high. We do this to avoid social disapproval, ridicule and humiliation. Since Asch’s experiments from the 1950’s, there has been much research delving deep into conformity – but Asch’s experiment certainly paved the way for such research to occur.
Thanks for reading,
Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs, 70.
Deutsch, M. & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51, 629-636.