The Asch Experiment

The Asch conformity experiments were a series of laboratory studies published in the 1950s that demonstrated a surprising degree of conformity to a majority opinion.

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’ behaviour.

Summary of results

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 judgements as evidence.’ Others suggest it is polite and politic, consistent with subjects’ claims that they did not believe the others’ judgements – they merely conformed.

The unanimity of the confederates has also been varied. When the confederates are not unanimous in their judgement, 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.[2]

One difference between the Asch conformity experiments and the Milgram experiment is that some subjects in the Asch conformity experiments attributed their conforming incorrect answers to their own misjudgement and “poor eyesight” (denying they believed the incorrect response), while those in the Milgram experiment placed blame for their behaviour on the study coordinators. Conformity may be much less salient than authority pressure.




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