In 1951, Solomon Asch created an experiment to understand how social pressures from a majority would make a single individual conform. Asch’s Conformity Experiments are some of the most famous experiments in psychology and are incredibly easy to replicate.
- Have six to eight people participate in the study. All but one of the people will be confederates, or accomplices, but they will not make this fact known to the one test subject that is not a confederate. The accomplices should seem like real participants to the test subject.
- There will be a series of eighteen simple visual questions, where the answer should always be obvious. All of your participants will answer each question in the presence of each other.
- Sit the participants in a line, and have the test subject sit at the end and be the last or second to last to give his or her answer.
- Show the participants a card with a line on it, similar to the card on the left in the above illustration. Then show them the card on the right, with the three lines labeled A, B, and C.
- Have each person say out loud which one out of A, B, or C is most similar to the line on the left.
- The first two answers should be correct, so the test subject feels comfortable.
- On the third answer, the confederates should all start giving the same wrong answer.
- Out of the eighteen trials, the confederates should answer twelve of them with the same incorrect answer. These twelve are the “critical trials.”
- The goal of this experiment is to see if the test subject will begin giving the same answer as the rest of the group even though it is the wrong answer.
Amazingly, Asch found that over the eighteen trials, 75 percent of participants conformed at least once to the clearly incorrect answer given by the majority of the group. After combing the trials, Asch concluded that 32 percent of the participants conformed. To make sure that the individuals accurately understood the length of the lines, Asch had them write down what they thought was the correct match, and 98 percent of the time, the participants chose the correct match. This percentage was higher because the pressure from being in the group was no longer an issue.
Asch also looked at how the number of people that were present affected conformity. When there was only one other person with the test subject, there was practically no impact on the answers given by the test subject. And when there were two other people present, there was a small effect. When there were three or more confederates, however, the results were much more significant.
When the comparison lines were harder to judge because their lengths were very similar, Asch discovered that conformity increased. This demonstrates that when people are unsure about something, they are more likely to turn to other people for a confirmation. The more difficult the task is, the greater the chance of having conformity.
Asch also discovered that if only one confederate gave the correct answer while the rest of the confederates still gave the wrong answer, conformity was dramatically lower (only 5–10 percent of the test subjects conformed). This shows that social support can play a key role in fighting conformity.
When the experiment was over, the test subjects were asked why they had followed along with what the rest of the group was saying. Most of the time, the test subjects replied by saying that they knew the answer was incorrect but they did not want to risk being ridiculed. Others responded that they actually believed what the group was saying was true.
What does the Asch experiment tell us about conformity? Conformity occurs for two main reasons: either because people want to t in—this is known as normative influence—or because of informational influence, where people believe the group must be more informed or understand more than they do. Both types of influence can have powerful impacts on individuals within a group setting. While many psychologists may have suspected that group dynamics could influence individual perception, it was not until Asch conducted his famous experiment that the world finally understood just how much perception could be altered by outside pressure.