Asch Conformity Experiments

asch experiment

The Asch conformity experiments were a series of studies published in the 1950s that demonstrated the power of conformity in groups. These are also known as the Asch Paradigm.

Experiments led by Solomon Asch of Swarthmore College asked groups of students to participate in a ‘vision test.’ In reality, all but one of the participants were confederates of the experimenter, and the study was really about how the remaining student would react to the confederates’ behavior.

This experiment was conducted using 123 male participants. Each participant was put into a group with 5 to 7 ‘confederates’ (people who knew the true aims of the experiment, but were introduced as participants to the naive ‘real’ participant). The participants were shown a card with a line on it, followed by another card with 3 lines on it labeled a, b, and c. The participants were then asked to say which line matched the line on the first card in length. Each line question was called a ‘trial.’ The ‘real’ participant answered last or penultimately. For the first two trials, the subject would feel at ease in the experiment, as he and the other ‘participants’ gave the obvious, correct answer. On the third trial, the confederates would start all giving the same wrong answer. There were 18 trials in total and the confederates answered incorrectly for 12 of them, these 12 were known as the ‘critical trials.’ The aim was to see whether the real participant would change his answer and respond in the same way as the confederates, despite it being the wrong answer.

Solomon Asch thought that the majority of people would not conform to something obviously wrong, but the results showed that 24% of the participants did not conform on any trial. 75% conformed at least once, and 5% conformed every time (37% conformity over subjects averaged across the critical trials).

In the basic Asch paradigm, the participants — the real subjects and the confederates — were all seated in a classroom. They were asked a variety of questions about the lines such as how long is A, compare the length of A to an everyday object, which line was longer than the other, which lines were the same length, etc. The group was told to announce their answers to each question out loud. The confederates always provided their answers before the study participant, and always gave the same answer as each other. They answered a few questions correctly but eventually began providing incorrect responses.

In a control group, with no pressure to conform to an erroneous view, only one subject out of 35 ever gave an incorrect answer. Solomon Asch hypothesized that the majority of people would not conform to something obviously wrong; however, when surrounded by individuals all voicing an incorrect answer, participants provided incorrect responses on a high proportion of the questions (32%). Seventy-five percent of the participants gave an incorrect answer to at least one question.

Variations of the basic paradigm tested how many cohorts were necessary to induce conformity, examining the influence of just one cohort and as many as fifteen. Results indicate that one cohort has virtually no influence and two cohorts have only a small influence. When three or more cohorts are present, the tendency to conform increases only modestly.

Asch suggested that this reflected poorly on factors such as education, which he thought must over-train conformity. Others have argued that it is rational to use other people’s judgments as evidence. And others suggest it is polite and politic, consistent with subjects’ claims that they did not believe the others’ judgments – they merely conformed.

The unanimity of the confederates has also been varied. When the confederates are not unanimous in their judgment, even if only one confederate voices a different opinion, participants are much more likely to resist the urge to conform (only 5-10% conform) than when the confederates all agree. This finding illuminates the power that even a small dissenting minority can have. Interestingly, this finding holds whether or not the dissenting confederate gives the correct answer. As long as the dissenting confederate gives an answer that is different from the majority, participants are more likely to give the correct answer. Males show around half the effect of females (tested in same-sex groups); and conformity is higher among members of an ingroup.

One difference between the Asch conformity experiments and the Milgram experiment as carried out by Stanley Milgram (also famous in social psychology) is that some subjects in these studies attributed their performance to their own misjudgment and ‘poor eyesight’ (many denied believing the response, saying they were merely going along), while those in the Milgram experiment blamed the experimenter in explaining their behavior. Conformity may be much less salient than authority pressure.

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