During the 1950’s, Solomon Asch (1907-1996) performed a series of experimental studies in which he examined the tendency of humans to conform to the views and judgements of others. When we conform, we act in ways that correspond to things such as the opinions, social customs, and cultural traditions of a group. In short, we are motivated to speak or behave in ways that agree or correspond with the speech and behavior expressed by others. In order to study conformity in a controlled research situation, Asch used a visual-perception task in which participants were asked to judge which of three “comparison lines” was the same length as that of a “reference line.” An example of this task is shown in Figure 1. The reference line is in the box on the left side of the figure, and the comparison lines are in the box on the right side. It should be obvious that Line C is identical in length to the reference line. Research participants were presented with a series of similar comparisons, some more difficult than others. Although they might get some of the more-difficult comparisons wrong, most of them were easy enough that the participants’ total number of correct responses should have been high.
Now, let’s suppose that you are a research participant in one of these studies, and that you are sitting with four other people, each of whom chooses Line A in Figure 1 before your turn comes up — an answer that obviously is wrong. What might you think as each successive person chooses Line A? You might think that something was wrong with their eyes or, perhaps, with yours. You probably would look very closely at the lines in an attempt to figure out what was wrong. When your turn finally came, what would you say? You may be quite certain that you would choose Line C regardless of what the others had said. Nevertheless, about 75% of people chose the same incorrect line as did the others in at least some of the comparisons in the series. The people did this even though they knew that they were making an incorrect choice.
As you may already have guessed, the responses of only one member of the group were being recorded (the research participant). The other group members were “confederates” — people who only pretended to be research participants, although the actual participant did not know this until the experiment had ended. On some trials, the confederates were told beforehand to choose the correct line and, on other trials, to choose one of the incorrect lines.
As is true in most experiments, research participants varied a great deal in how they reacted to the incorrect choices of the group:
At one extreme, about one quarter of the subjects were completely independent and never agreed with the erroneous judgments of the majority. At the other extreme, some individuals went with the majority nearly all the time…. Those who strike out on the path of independence do not, as a rule, succumb to the majority even over an extended series of trials, while those who choose the path of compliance are unable to free themselves as the ordeal is prolonged. (Asch, 1955, p. 4)
Asch (1951, 1955, and 1956) found that several situational factors affected, on average, the publicly stated choices of the actual participants (although these factors did not often affect what the participants truly believed). In a number of experiments, Asch varied these factors in order to determine which ones were most important for conformity. He found that three factors were especially important:
- The number of confederates in the group. When there were three or fewer confederates, research participants became much less likely to conform. And, as you might expect, they were least likely to conform when there was only one confederate. When the number of confederates reached four, participants were most likely to conform: increasing the number of confederates past four had virtually no effect on the amount of conformity. That is, whether there were four or ten confederates, participants conformed to about the same degree.
- The amount of disagreement among confederates. If even one confederate chose a line that differed from the one chosen by the other confederates, even if that line also was incorrect, actual participants were much more likely to state their real opinion.
- The difficulty of the judgement. If the comparison lines were very similar in length both to each other and to the reference line, participants were more likely to conform with the incorrect judgements of the confederates. In this case, it seems, the participants became more uncertain about their own choice when the confederates chose another line because neither choice was obviously correct or incorrect.
Why did participants often conform with the incorrect judgements of the confederates? It seems that, in general, people are motivated not to disagree with others in a group — not to stick out as the only dissenter — especially when the others all agree. There are two likely reasons for this:
- We tend to perceive others to be reliable sources of information. Although we typically obtain accurate information about the world from our senses, we also obtain a great deal of accurate information from others. When the rest of a group agrees on something, even when it contradicts our own experiences or views, we tend to assume that the group consensus is likely to be correct.
- People fear the negative reactions of others to dissent. We are strongly motivated to establish and maintain strong connections to others. In order to be most successful in achieving this goal, we must be skillful in generating positive feelings (for us) in others. We avoid any behaviors that potentially could generate negative feelings; and, of course, when we disagree with others, they are more likely to develop negative feelings for us.
Most of the participants felt very strange, foolish, and/or fearful of others’ reactions whenever they disagreed with the group consensus, which suggests that the motive described in the second reason is a very powerful one. Furthermore, the fact that this motive affects our behavior even when we are with strangers suggests that it has an even stronger impact when we are with family, friends, and anyone else with whom we have a close bond.
The Use of Deception by Social Psychologists
Asch’s conformity studies illustrate a strategy often used in research performed by social psychologists: two or more people take part in an experiment, but only one person is the actual participant. Confederates are the most important component of the research situation because they represent the social influence that affects the participant’s responses. Participants are deceived about the true roles of confederates, as well as about the true purpose of the study: if they knew that it was all a ruse (i.e., that the goal was to deceive them), then researchers would be unable to test the effects of social-situational factors on participants.
Although there are some limitations to Asch’s conformity studies (see, for example, Bond & Smith, 1996), the general finding that humans tend to conform readily within particular social situations seems to be accurate. In fact, in your everyday life, you probably have observed that people generally avoid expressing opinions that differ too much from those around them, especially when they are uncertain of their opinions and virtually all the others agree that a particular opinion is correct. Asch’s discovery that his participants often conformed to an obviously incorrect opinion seems to stretch this general rule to the breaking point. Although such an extreme situation may not often be encountered in everyday life, Asch’s results suggest that people will express opinions that they don’t actually hold whenever they feel strong social pressures to do so.
As you continue to study social psychology, you probably will find many challenges to the common belief (in western societies, at least) that the primary causes of human behavior are internal to the self — causal factors such as personality traits and consciously made judgements and decisions. Social psychology, probably more than any other field of psychology, contains discoveries and theories that often seem surprising or strange because they contradict our basic intuitions and deeply held beliefs about the typical causes of our mental events and behavior. But this is precisely why social-psychological research is so valuable: it provides insights into human nature that we could not have obtained in other ways.
Study Questions for Section 6-2
- How would you define “conformity” in your own words?
- How did Solomon Asch study conformity?
- Which situational factors had the largest influence on the degree to which participants conformed in Asch’s experiments?
- Why do individuals tend to avoid disagreeing with other members of their group?
- Why did Asch make use of deception in his studies of conformity?
- Given what you have learned above, do you think that eyewitnesses to a crime should be interviewed together or separately? Why?
Asch, S. E. ( 1951 ). Effects of group pressure on the modification and distortion of judgments. In H. Guetzkow (Ed.), Groups, leadership and men (pp. 177-190). Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.
Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, 193 (5), 31–35. Retrieved November 13, 2011, from http://www.columbia.edu/cu/psychology/terrace/w1001/readings/asch.pdf
Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 70, 1-70. doi: 10.1037/h0093718 Retrieved March 24, 2014, from http://psyc604.stasson.org/Asch1956.pdf
Bond, R., & Smith, R. B. (1996). Culture and conformity: A meta-analysis of studies using Asch’s (1952b, 1956) line judgment task. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 111-137. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.119.1.111
Retrieved November 13, 2011, from http://www.columbia.edu/cu/psychology/terrace/w1001/readings/asch.pdf