The uncomfortable truth about human nature
The psychologist Solomon Asch
During the early years of World War II, when Hitler was at the height of power, Solomon Asch began studying the impact of propaganda and indoctrination while he was a professor at Brooklyn College’s psychology department. He also was a professor for 19 years at Swarthmore College.
During the 1950s, Asch became famous for his series of experiments that demonstrated the effects of social pressure on conformity. How far would people go to conform to others in a group? Asch’s research demonstrated that participants were surprisingly likely to conform to a group, even when they personally believed that the group was incorrect.
- To what extent do social forces alter people’s opinions?
- Which aspect of the group influence is most important — the size of the majority, or the unanimity of opinion?
Asch believed that people behave according to how they perceive the world, not to how it actually is.
The Asch experiment
Asch used an experiment to study conformity based on a “simple vision test”.
Using a line judgment task, Asch put a naive participant in a room with other confederates/stooges. The confederates had agreed in advance what their responses were going to be when presented with the line task. Giving intentionally the same wrong answer most of the time.
The real participant didn’t know this and was led to believe that the other people were also real participants like himself.
Each person in the room had to state aloud which comparison line (A, B, or C) was most like the target line. The answer was always obvious. The real participant sat at the end of the row and gave his answer last.
Asch was interested to see if the real participant would conform to the majority view. The confederates gave the wrong answer most of the time (known as critical trials).
Nearly 75% of the participants in the conformity experiments went along with the rest of the group at least one time.
Asch also found that having one of the confederates give the correct answer while the rest of the confederates gave the incorrect answer dramatically lowered conformity, which means that having social support is an important tool in combating conformity.
After combining the trials, the results indicated that participants conformed to the incorrect group answer approximately one-third of the time.
Why did the participants conform so easily? When they were interviewed after the experiment, most of them said that they did not really believe their conforming answers, but had gone along with the group for fear of being ridiculed.
A few of them said that they really did believe the group’s answers were correct.
Apparently, people conform for two main reasons: because they want to fit in with the group (normative influence) and because they believe the group is better informed than they are (informational influence).
Conformity can be influenced both by a need to fit in and a belief that other people are smarter or better informed.
Factors that influence conformity
Asch went on to conduct further experiments in order to determine which factors influenced, and how and when people conform. He found that:
- Conformity tends to increase when more people are present.
- Conformity also increases when the task becomes more difficult.
- Conformity increases when other members of the group are of a higher social status.
- Conformity tends to decrease, however, when people are able to respond privately (i.e., when the group can’t know the naive participants’ answers).