During the 1950s, Solomon Asch conducted and published a series of laboratory experiments that demonstrated the degree to which an individual's own opinions are influenced by those of a majority group. Together, these experiments are recognized as the Asch conformity experiments or the Asch Paradigm. The methodology developed by Asch has been utilised by many researchers and the paradigm is in use in present day social psychology. The paradigm has been used to investigate the relationship between conformity and task importance, age, gender, and culture.
Initial conformity experiment
In 1951, Solomon Asch of Swarthmore College conducted one of his first conformity laboratory experiments, laying the foundation for his remaining conformity studies. The conformity experiment was published on two occasions.
Male college students participated in a simple “perceptual” task. In reality, all but one of the participants were "confederates" (i.e., actors), and the true focus of the study was about how the remaining student (i.e., the real participant) would react to the confederates' behavior.
Each participant was placed in a room with seven "confederates". Confederates knew the true aim of the experiment, but were introduced as participants to the "real" participant. Participants were shown a card with a line on it, followed by a card with three lines on it (lines labeled A, B and C, respectively). Participants were then asked to say aloud, which line (i.e., A, B or C) matched the line on the first card in length. Each line question was called a "trial". Prior to the experiment, all confederates were given specific instructions on how they should respond to each trial. Specifically, they were told to unanimously give the correct response or unanimously give the incorrect response. The group sat in a manner so that the real participant was always the last to respond (i.e., the real participant sat towards the end of a table). For the first two trials, the participant would feel at ease in the experiment, as he and the confederates gave the obvious, correct answer. On the third trial, the confederates would all give the same wrong answer, placing the participant in a dilemma. 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. Once the experiment was completed, the "real" participant was individually interviewed; towards the end of the interview, the participant was debriefed about the true purpose of the study. Participants' responses to interview questions were a valuable component of Asch's study because it gave him a glimpse of the psychological aspects of the experimental situation. It also provided Asch with information about individual differences among participants.
Solomon Asch's experiment also had a control condition where there were no confederates, only a "real participant". This meant that one participant answered to all 18 trials without the group of confederates present and with only the experimenter in the room. In total, there were 50 "real" participants that took part in the experimental condition and 37 participants in the control condition.
All results are based on participants' responses to critical trials. In the control group, with no pressure to conform to confederates, the error rate was less than 1%. An examination of all critical trials in the experimental group revealed that one-third of all responses were incorrect. These incorrect responses often matched the incorrect response of the majority group (i.e., confederates). Overall, in the experimental group, 75% of the participants gave an incorrect answer to at least one question while only 25% never gave an incorrect response.
Through analysis of participants' interview responses, Asch discovered that there were vast individual differences in reaction to the experimental situation. Thus, interview data revealed that participants who did not conform to the majority group and thus, remained "independent" from the group, reacted to the experiment in particular ways. Some reacted with "confidence" in their perception and experience. That is, despite experiencing conflict between their idea of the obvious answer and the groups incorrect answer, they stuck with the answer that was based on their own perception. Others were "withdrawn", suggesting that they stuck with their perception without experiencing conflict as those in the confidence group. Some participants also exhibited "doubt". This meant that they experienced great doubt and tension but nonetheless stuck with their correct responses because they felt a need to adequately take part in the task.
Moreover, interview data with participants that did conform to the majority group on at least one-half or more of the trials, and thus, "yielded" to the group also exhibited certain reactions to the experiment. Some participants reacted with a "distortion of perception". These participants (very few) conformed on nearly all trials and actually believed that the confederates incorrect answers were true. They were never aware that the majority gave incorrect answers. Other participants exhibited a "distortion of judgment" (most belonged to this category). This meant that participants got to a point where they realized that they must be wrong and that the majority must be right, leading them to answer with the majority. These individuals lacked confidence and were very doubtful. Lastly, participants exhibited a "distortion of action", suggesting that they knew what the correct answer was, but conformed with the majority group simply because they didn't want to seem inferior.
Asch provided a descriptive account of a subject that remained "independent" and another that "yielded". After disclosing the true nature of the experiment, the "independent" subject said that he felt happy and relieved and added, "I do not deny that at times I had the feeling: 'to go with it, I'll go along with the rest'.(page 182)" At the other end of the spectrum, one "yielding" subject (who conformed in 11 of 12 critical trials) said, "I suspected about the middle – but tried to push it out of my mind."(page 182) Asch points out that although the "yielding" subject was suspicious, he was not able to reinstate his confidence and go against the majority.
Solomon Asch took the paradigm from his experiment published in 1951 and applied it to his subsequent research experiments. In his 1952b paper, he slightly altered his experiment. His sample still consisted of male college students. However, instead of eight persons per session, there were seven to nine; instead of 18 trials (with 12 of them being critical trials), there were 12 trials (with 7 of them being critical trials). Asch also mentioned that an outsider in the room would single out the "real" participant after the first few trials. Furthermore, in his 1955 paper he conducted the same study as in 1951 but with 123 male students from three different universities; instead of eight participants per group, there was a range of seven to nine. The real participant also sat among the group so that they were the last or almost last person to give a response. Finally, his 1956 paper also consisted of 123 male college students from three different universities. Asch never mentioned whether it was the same sample as in his 1955 paper. Again, like his 1955 paper, the real participant sat among the group so that they were the last or almost last person to give a response. Unlike his previous papers, his 1956 paper includes an elaborate account of his interviews with participants. Overall, across all of his papers published, Asch found the same results – participants conformed to the majority group in about one-third of all critical trials.
In his 1951 experiment and subsequent studies, Asch wanted to further his investigation of conformity by examining whether slight changes in participants' environments would lead to different results. He had the following experimental variations:
- Presence of a true partner
- Asch examined whether the presence of a "true partner" influenced level of conformity. This partner was also a "real" participant or another actor that was told to give the correct response to each question. This decreased the level of conformity, especially when the partner was instructed to give correct responses.
- Withdrawal of a partner
- Asch also examined whether the removal of a partner (that he instructed to give correct answers) halfway through the experiment would influence the participants' level of conformity. He found that there was a low level of conformity during the first half of the experiment. However, once the partner left the room, the level of conformity increased dramatically.
- Majority size
- Asch also examined whether decreasing or increasing the majority size had an influence on participants' level of conformity. It was discovered that the smaller the size of the opposing group (confederates), the lower the level of conformity, and by simply increasing the opposing group to two or three persons, the level of conformity increased substantially. However, an opposing group beyond three persons (e.g., four, five six etc.) did not increase conformity.
- Written responses
- Asch wanted to know whether altering participants' method of responding would have an influence on their level of conformity. He constructed an experiment whereby all confederates verbalized their responses aloud and only the "real" participant was allowed to respond in writing. He discovered that conformity significantly decreased when shifting from public to written responses.
Normative influence vs. referent informational influence
The Asch conformity experiments are often interpreted as evidence for the power of conformity and normative social influence, where normative influences is the willingness to conform publicly to attain social reward and avoid social punishment. From this perspective the results are viewed as a striking example of people publicly endorsing the group response despite knowing full well that they were endorsing an incorrect response.
In contrast, John Turner and colleagues argue that the interpretation of the Asch conformity experiments as normative influence is inconsistent with the data. They point out that post experiment interviews revealed that participants experienced uncertainty about their own judgement during the experiments. Although the correct answer appeared obvious to the researchers, this was not necessarily the experience of participants. Moreover, subsequent research has demonstrated similar patterns of conformity where participants were anonymous and thus not subject to social punishment or reward on the basis of their responses. From this perspective the Asch conformity experiments are viewed as evidence for the self-categorization theory account of social influence (otherwise known as the theory of referent informational influence). Here the observed conformity is an example of depersonalization processes whereby people expect to hold the same opinions as others in their ingroup and will often adopt those opinions.
Social comparison theory
The conformity demonstrated in Asch experiments is problematic for social comparison theory. Social comparison theory suggests that when seeking to validate opinions and abilities people will first turn to direct observation. If direct observation is ineffective or not available then people will then turn to comparable others for validation. In other words, social comparison theory predicts that when physical reality testing yields uncertainty, social reality testing will arise. The Asch conformity experiments demonstrate that uncertainty can arise as an outcome of social reality testing. More broadly, this inconsistency has been used to support the position that the theoretical distinction between social reality testing and physical reality testing is untenable.
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