What does it mean to conform? Sheep conform: they prefer to follow the rest of the flock, even if that decision takes them over the edge of a cliff. By contrast, we humans like to think we follow the beat of our own drum and non-conformity is seen as the preferable choice, but what happens if we are put in a situation where we are given a choice of conforming even though we know it is wrong rather than face ridicule by speaking up? This was the dilemma facing the participants of the Asch S conformity experiment.
What was the Asch S conformity experiment?
Soloman Asch was a psychologist who devised a series of classic experiments in the 1950s designed to test whether social pressure from a majority group would influence a person to conform.
Subjects were invited to participate in an experiment with seven other people (confederates), all of whom had been told in advance what their responses were to be, although the subject was unaware of this. Each of the participants was asked to look at a line segment and judge which of the three comparison line segments were identical; the subject was always the last to be asked.
What were the results of the Asch S conformity experiment?
In some of the experiment trials, the confederates gave the correct answer, but in others, differing numbers of confederates gave the wrong answer so Asch could see if the subject altered his or her response in order to conform to the view of the majority, despite the fact that the answer was incredibly obvious. Interestingly, the more incorrect answers were given by confederates, the more the subject was likely to conform to the group majority.
Around one third of the subjects gave an incorrect answer to conform to the group majority and three quarters of them went along with the majority at least once, although one quarter of the subjects always stuck to their guns and refused to conform.
What conclusion did Asch draw from the results of the conformity experiments?
Asch asked the subjects why they gave the wrong answer even though they knew it was incorrect. Although some claimed that they believed their answers were correct, most replied that they went along with the rest of the group because they did not wish to be the odd one out and face possible ridicule.
Asch concluded from the results of his conformity experiments that people choose to conform for one of two reasons: because they want to fit in with everyone else (normative influence) and because they think other people must know something they don’t (informational influence).
What criticisms were made of the experiment?
Asch’s experiment was criticised for using a biased sample of subjects and an artificial task bearing no resemblance to an everyday situation. A very similar experiment was carried out in the 1980s using a wider range of subjects and the results were very different: only one person conformed to the majority, despite the fact there were a large number of trials. But despite the obvious drawbacks of Asch’s original experiment, his research did give psychologists an important insight into the influence of social pressure on human behaviour.