How do you think you would react in all of them?
Discussion The Asch Conformity Experiment
I’m working on a Philosophy question and need guidance to help me study.
Picture yourself taking part in three of the most famous social psychology experiments/ studies of all time. How do you think you would react in all of them?
In psychology, the Asch conformity experiments or the Asch paradigm were a series of studies directed by Solomon Asch studying if and how individuals yielded to or defied a majority group and the effect of such influences on beliefs and opinions.
Developed in the 1950s, the methodology remains in use by many researchers. Uses include the study of conformity effects of task importance, age, sex, and culture.
Initial conformity experiment
One of the pairs of cards used in the experiment. The card on the left has the reference line and the one on the right shows the three comparison lines.
In 1951, Solomon Asch conducted his first conformity laboratory experiments at Swarthmore College, laying the foundation for his remaining conformity studies. The experiment was published on two occasions.
Groups of eight male college students participated in a simple “perceptual” task. In reality, all but one of the participants were actors, and the true focus of the study was about how the remaining participant would react to the actors’ behavior.
The actors knew the true aim of the experiment, but were introduced to the subject as other participants. Each student viewed a card with a line on it, followed by another with three lines labeled A, B, and C (see accompanying figure). One of these lines was the same as that on the first card, and the other two lines were clearly longer or shorter (i.e., a near-100% rate of correct responding was expected). Each participant was then asked to say aloud which line matched the length of that on the first card. Before the experiment, all actors were given detailed instructions on how they should respond to each trial (card presentation). They would always unanimously nominate one comparator, but on certain trials they would give the correct response and on others, an incorrect response. The group was seated such that the real participant always responded last.
Subjects completed 18 trials. On the first two trials, both the subject and the actors gave the obvious, correct answer. On the third trial, the actors would all give the same wrong answer. This wrong-responding recurred on 11 of the remaining 15 trials. It was subjects’ behavior on these 12 “critical trials” (the 3rd trial + the 11 trials where the actors gave the same wrong answer) that formed the aim of the study: to test how many subjects would change their answer to conform to those of the 7 actors, despite it being wrong. Subjects were interviewed after the study including being debriefed about the true purpose of the study. These post-test interviews shed valuable light on the study: both because they revealed subjects often were “just going along” and because they revealed considerable individual differences to Asch. Additional trials with slightly altered conditions were also run, including having a single actor also give the correct answer.
Asch’s experiment also had a condition in which participants were tested alone with only the experimenter in the room. In total, there were 50 subjects in the experimental condition and 37 in the control condition.
In the control group, with no pressure to conform to actors, the error rate on the critical stimuli was less than 1%.
In the actor condition also, the majority of participants’ responses remained correct (63.2%), but a sizable minority of responses conformed to the actors’ (incorrect) answer (36.8 percent). The responses revealed strong individual differences: Only 5 percent of participants were always swayed by the crowd. 25 percent of the sample consistently defied majority opinion, with the rest conforming on some trials. An examination of all critical trials in the experimental group revealed that one-third of all responses were incorrect. These incorrect responses often matched the incorrect response of the majority group (i.e., actors). Overall, 75% of participants gave at least one incorrect answer out of the 12 critical trials. In his opinion regarding the study results, Asch put it this way: “That intelligent, well-meaning, young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern.”
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Participants’ interview responses revealed a complex mixture of individual differences in subjects’ reaction to the experimental situation, with distinct reactions linked to factors such as confidence, self-doubt, the desire to be normative, and resolving perceived confusion over the nature of the task.
Asch’s report included interviews of a subject that remained “independent” and another that “yielded.” Each provided a descriptive account following disclosure of the true nature of the experiment. The “independent” subject said that he felt happy and relieved and added, “I do not deny that at times I had the feeling: ‘to go with it, I’ll go along with the rest.’” (page 182) At the other end of the spectrum, one “yielding” subject (who conformed in 11 of 12 critical trials) said, “I suspected about the middle – but tried to push it out of my mind.” (page 182) Asch points out that although the “yielding” subject was suspicious, he was not sufficiently confident to go against the majority.
Attitudes of independent responders
Subjects who did not conform to the majority reacted either with “confidence”: they experienced conflict between their idea of the obvious answer and the group’s incorrect answer, but stuck with their own answer, or were “withdrawn”. These latter subjects stuck with their perception but did not experience conflict in doing so. Some participants also exhibited “doubt”, responding in accordance with their perception, but questioning their own judgment while nonetheless sticking to their (correct) response, expressing this as needing to behave as they had been asked to do in the task.
Attitudes of responders conforming on one or more trials
Participants who conformed to the majority on at least 50% of trials reported reacting with what Asch called a “distortion of perception”. These participants, who made up a distinct minority (only 12 subjects), expressed the belief that the actors’ answers were correct, and were apparently unaware that the majority were giving incorrect answers.
Among the other participants who yielded on some trials, most expressed what Asch termed “distortion of judgment”. These participants concluded after a number of trials that they must be wrongly interpreting the stimuli and that the majority must be right, leading them to answer with the majority. These individuals were characterised by low levels of confidence. The final group of participants who yielded on at least some trials exhibited a “distortion of action”. These subjects reported that they knew what the correct answer was, but conformed with the majority group simply because they didn’t want to seem out of step by not going along with the rest.
Variations on the original paradigm
An example of Asch’s experimental procedure in 1955. There are six actors and one real participant (second to last person sitting to the right of the table).
In subsequent research experiments, Asch explored several variations on the paradigm from his 1951 study.
In 1955 he reported on work with 123 male students from three different universities. A second paper in 1956 also consisted of 123 male college students from three different universities,: Asch did not state if this was in fact the same sample as reported in his 1955 paper: The principal difference is that the 1956 paper includes an elaborate account of his interviews with participants. Across all these papers, Asch found the same results: participants conformed to the majority group in about one-third of all critical trials.