Solomon Asch conducted an experiment to investigate the extent to which social pressure from a majority group could affect a person to conform.
Asch (1951) devised what is now regarded as a classic experiment in social psychology, whereby there was an obvious answer to a line judgment task.
If the participant gave an incorrect answer it would be clear that this was due to group pressure.
Asch measured the number of times each participant conformed to the majority view. On average, about one third (32%) of the participants who were placed in this situation went along and conformed with the clearly incorrect majority on the critical trials.
Over the 12 critical trials, about 75% of participants conformed at least once, and 25% of participants never conformed.
In the control group, with no pressure to conform to confederates, less than 1% of participants gave the wrong answer.
Why did the participants conform so readily? 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 or thought “peculiar”.
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).
One limitation of the study is that it uses a biased sample. All the participants were male students who all belonged to the same age group. This means that the study lacks population validity and that the results cannot be generalized to females or older groups of people.
Some critics thought the high levels of conformity found by Asch were a reflection of American, 1950’s culture and told us more about the historical and cultural climate of the USA in the 1950s than they do about the phenomena of conformity.
In the 1950s America was very conservative, involved in an anti-communist witch-hunt (which became known as McCarthyism) against anyone who was thought to hold sympathetic left-wing views. Conformity to American values was expected. Support for this comes from studies in the 1970s and 1980s that show lower conformity rates (e.g., Perrin & Spencer, 1980).
Perrin and Spencer (1980) suggested that the Asch effect was a “child of its time.” They carried out an exact replication of the original Asch experiment using engineering, mathematics and chemistry students as subjects. They found that on only one out of 396 trials did an observer join the erroneous majority.
Perrin and Spencer argue that a cultural change has taken place in the value placed on conformity and obedience and in the position of students. In America in the 1950s students were unobtrusive members of society whereas now they occupy a free questioning role.