The Asch experiment reveals the true power of conformity. In fact, you might just see yourself in a whole new light!
If you’ve ever wondered how your opinions can influence people, as well as how others can influence you, the Asch experiment is worth reading about in more detail. One of the greatest psychologists of the past century, Solomon Asch, ran a series of experiments during the 1950s. These experiments show the degree to which a person’s own opinions are influenced by those of groups.
Not only did Asch find that people were willing to ignore reality and give an incorrect answer in order to conform to the rest of the group, but he also discovered why we do this as part of our human nature.
Here are three observations from the Asch experiment and what they actually reveal about human nature.
1. The Asch experiment challenges conformity – without the individual realising it
One of Asch’s experiments looked at a vision test sample. Participants were shown a line segment. They then had to choose the matching line from a group three segments of different lengths. The experimenter asks each participant individually to select the matching line segment.
Sounds pretty straightforward, but, of course, there is a catch. Unknown to the participants, there are a number of planted individuals, who are working for the experimenter. Their job is to subtly convince the rest of the room, the genuine participants, to come around to their way of thinking.
This meant, on some occasions, everyone in the group chooses the correct line, but occasionally, the other participants unanimously declare that a different line is actually the correct match.
So what do you do when the experimenter asks you which line is the right match? Do you go with your initial response, or do you choose to conform to the rest of the group?
Or, do you think if you were none the wiser about who was in the room with you, you might come around to others’ way of thinking? Would you write it off as “just compromise” or “the nature of group work” and as “par for the course” to accept the opinions of others?
2. Conformity is more important than doing the right thing
This brings us to the second of Asch’s observations. In considering your answer to the above question, also consider your own personal situation and day to day life. You might find yourself strongly disagreeing with the statement that conformity is more important than doing the right thing.
After all, we would all like to believe that doing the right thing is part of our human nature. We are hard-wired to do right by others; we are brought up to have moral fibre and that is a lesson we pass on to our own children.
However, we are also hard-wired to conformity, according to the Asch experiment. Again, consider your own situation. You may believe you are non-conformist enough to stand up to a group when you know you are right. However, you may think you are still conformist enough to blend in with the rest of your peers.
How “conformist” does that really make you?
In psychological terms, to “conform”, you must have a general tendency to follow the unspoken rules or behaviours of the social group. Asch’s interest was how pressure from a group could lead people to conform, even when they knew that the rest of the group was wrong. The purpose of Asch’s experiments? To demonstrate the power of conformity in groups.
During the match experiment, nearly 75% of the participants in Asch’s conformity experiments went along with the rest of the group at least one time. After combining the trials, the results indicated that participants conformed to the incorrect group answer approximately one-third of the time.
3. You can be influenced, whether you like it or not!
Conformity is about influence. However, it is possible to conform without being completely submissive.
Next time you are in a group situation, think about how easy you are to influence, as well as those around you. Look out for some of these factors which may influence conformity:
- Conformity tends to increase when more people are present. However, there is little change once the group size goes beyond four or five people.
- Conformity also increases when the task becomes more difficult. In the face of uncertainty, people turn to others for information about how to respond.
- Conformity increases when other members of the group are of a higher social status. When people view the others in the group as more powerful or knowledgeable than themselves, they are more likely to go along with the group.
- Conformity tends to decrease, however, when people are able to respond privately. Research has also shown that conformity decreases if they have support from at least one other individual in a group.
In everyday situations, there is an implicit set of rules of who is in charge. If we violate these rules, it leads to feelings of embarrassment and awkwardness so intense we prefer to accept the submissive role the occasion requires.
It is a terrible critique of human behaviour that we would rather let something terrible happen than act in a socially embarrassing manner. However, according to Asch, it might just be true!