Solomon Asch, an American psychologist, conducted what is now considered a classic experiment in social psychology about conformity.
Asch told the participants that the purpose of the experiment was to test one’s visual abilities. The real purpose was to test levels of conformity in group situations. There was a group of eight participants in each trial; however, seven of these were confederates, meaning that they knew the real purpose of the experiment but they pretended to be participants. The group was then given two images. One was an image of three lines of varying length and the other was an image of one line which matched the length of one of the lines in the first picture:
They were presented with variations of these images several times. The participants had to say which lines matched in length in the two images that were presented. They had to give their answers aloud. The real participant always answered last. At first, the confederates gave the correct answers as to which of the lines were matching in length. After a few trials, however, they unanimously started giving the incorrect answer to see if this would affect what the real participant said. There were 18 trials in total. The confederates gave wrong answers on 12 of those trials, which were called the ‘critical trials.’ If everyone was giving the wrong answer, would you do the same? Would you start doubting your visual abilities? Or would you hold your ground and give the answer you believe to be correct regardless of the group?
The results of the experiment revealed that one third of the participants conformed with the confederates on the critical trials even though the answers the confederates were giving were clearly wrong. Over the 12 critical trials approximately 75% of participants conformed at least once and 25% of participant never conformed. In the control condition, the participants were asked to write down the correct match between the lines, without sharing their answers with the group. The results showed that the participants were very accurate, giving the correct answers 98 percent of the time. Therefore, the reason as to why they conformed could not be that they were unable to make accurate judgments themselves.
So why did they conform? When they were asked this question after the experiment, the participants gave one of two reasons. The first is that they feared facing ridicule and wanted to fit in with the group. This is called normative influence. The second reason was that many of the participants actually thought the confederates were correct and were better informed, so they went along with them. This is called informational influence.
There are some criticisms of this experiment. Since the experiment was conducted in lab settings, it is not generalizable to real-world situations. Therefore, it is low on ecological validity. Stimuli in the real world are more ambiguous than those in a lab setting. When stimuli are vague and confusing, conformist behaviours tend to increase since people are unsure of themselves and don’t wish to appear incompetent in front of others. Another criticism was that the participants were all male and from the same age group; therefore, the results cannot be generalized to the rest of the population. Furthermore deception was used to trick the participants into believing the experiment was a vision test. Nonetheless, this was essential for the experiment.
Variations of this experiment have been conducted showing that certain factors can increase or decrease the pressure to conform in groups. For instance, if the size of the group is small, conformity decreases. If there are four or more members in a group, it increases. Also if one of the confederates gave a different answer from the majority, conformity can be reduced by as much as 80 percent. As stated before, if the task becomes more difficult or ambiguous, conformity increases. This is because we look to others to reduce uncertainty. Finally the status of the members is an important factor. When the members of the group are perceived to be high status individuals, the levels of conformity rise.
Although the participants did not know each other and were not friends, they still felt the need to belong to the group and be accepted. While these are basic human needs, we should also realize that we can be accepted for who we are, even if we are different from the crowd. In a lab setting when you are just deciding which lines match, the consequences are minimal. However, conformity can have more serious consequences in the real world, especially since levels of conformity are presumed to be much higher in real world situations than in laboratory settings. As Rollo May, an American existential psychologist, said, “The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.”
Cherry, K. (n.d.). The Asch Conformity Experiments. About.com. Retrieved August 28, 2013, from, http://psychology.about.com/od/classicpsychologystudies/p/conformity.htm
HeroicImaginationTV. (February 19, 2012). Asch Conformity Experiment. Retrieved August 28, 2013, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NyDDyT1lDhA
McLeod, S. A. (2008). Asch Experiment – Simply Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/asch-conformity.html
Image credit: tarykettle. (October 1, 2012). Are you ready to stand out from the crowd? Florida-Media. Retrieved August 28, 2013, from, http://florida-media-link.com/stand-out-from-the-crowd/