Broadly, conformity can be defined as ‘yielding to group pressure’, and for this reason it is also referred to as majority influence. There have been many experimental studies of conformity. The most well known is a series of experiments conducted in the 1950s by an American social psychologist called Solomon Asch.
How did Solomon Asch study conformity?
Asch argued that conformity can best be studied by seeing if people agree or disagree with others who give an obviously wrong answer on tasks with an obvious and unambiguous answer. In his original 1951 study, Asch devised 20 slightly different line judgement tasks. On these tasks, participants have to say which of the 3 lines labelled A, B, and C is the same length as the line to the left of them, as shown below.
Asch conducted a pilot study to ensure that the tasks actually did have an obvious and unambiguous solution. In the pilot study, he tested 26 participants one at a time on each of the 20 tasks. So, with 36 people each doing 20 tasks, a total of 720 judgements were made. Asch found a wrong answer was given only 3 times. Therefore, participants got the
answer right 717/720 times (99.6%), and this showed that the tasks were very easy and did have one obviously correct answer and two obviously incorrect answers.
Asch then carried out the study itself. He wanted to see how much conformity male students at the university he worked at would show. Some of the participants (Ps) in the pilot study were asked if they would act as stooges (or confederates). Asch told them that they would be doing the tasks again, but this time in a group, with each person saying out loud their answers. The stooges were told that they would be seated around a table, and that there would be one other person (called the naïve participant) who was completely unaware that they were stooges, and that the study was about conformity.
The line judgement task being carried out by Asch (front right) Asch told the stooges that he would be acting as the experimenter, and that they would be seated around a table in such a way that the naïve participant would be the last but one to answer.
The stooges were also told that there would be a total of 18 trials on which they would be asked to do the line judgement tasks. Of these, 6 would be neutral trials, and the stooges were told to all give the correct answer. The other 12 trials would be critical trials, and the stooges were told that they should unanimously give a wrong answer (i.e. they would all give the same wrong answer).
Asch informed the stooges that he would give a ‘secret signal’ when he wanted them to give a unanimously wrong answer. The critical trials and neutral trials were mixed up so that there was less chance of the naïve participant suspecting that the set-up wasn’t what it appeared to be.
This naïve participant (the one in the middle) has just heard the previous five participants give the same wrong answer. He has to decide whether he will give the right answer or give the wrong answer, and conform to the majority’s opinion
What did Asch find in this study?
In the original 1951 study, Asch used 6 stooge participants and one naïve participant. His findings are summarised below:
So, although no participant conformed all the time, one participant conformed on eleven of the trials, and three on ten of the trials. 37 out
of 50 participants (74%) conformed at least once, and the remaining 13/50 participants (26%) never conformed at all. On average, participants conformed on 3.84 out of the 12 trials, which is where the figure of 32% conformity comes from. Given these results, Asch concluded that even on a task which has an obvious and unambiguous answer, a unanimous numerical majority can influence the behaviour of a numerical minority. How can we evaluate Asch’s study of conformity?
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