Humans are social animals, formign groups and strong bonds naturally. As such, it’s not hard to see the many ways that belonging to a group is important. Conformity is one effect that can happen as a result of this need to belong. Conformity is when behaviour is modified in order to fit in with a larger group.
Solomon Asch was not the first to investigate conformity, but his studies have become arguably the most influential in the field. Asch designed his experiments on the back of the findings of existing research that tended to find when given opinions contrary to their own, subjects would alter their own opinions so they would be in-line with the group majority.
Methodology and Results
For the following experiments Asch used the same experimental paradigm using the line length cards (which has come to be known as the Asch Paradigm). It involves matching one line with one from a group of three.
Typical Experimental Condition
7 to 9 male college students get together in a room, but only one of them is a naïve subject – the rest are confederates. i.e. the subject thinks everyone is just there like him, but in actual fact they all know what is going on. They sit in a row at a large desk and face the experimenter who holds up cards like those in figure 1. The subject is near the end of the line, so by the time they have given their response they have heard the responses of most of the group. The first two “trials” the confederates give the right answer and it all appears a bit boring. On the third trial, however, they deliberately give the wrong answer. In total there are 18 trials, but only in 12 of these do the group deliberately give the wrong answer (when this happens it’s called a “critical trial”).
In Asch’s first experiment reported in his 1955 paper, there were 123 subjects from three different colleges. The results were as follows:
- When alone: almost 100% accurate (<1% error rate)
- When in the group, the subjects conformed 36.8% of the time
In the results above, there was a range of individual variability:
- About 25% of subjects never agreed with the group
- Some subjects always agreed with the group
The subjects were interviewed after each experiment so the researchers could find out more about why they went along with the group. However, these were not investigated extensively. In his report he makes some generalizations, saying confidence in one’s own opinion was one factor that would have influenced the rate of conformity. There were some who adopted the idea, “I am wrong, they are right” and so changed their answers accordingly. Other subjects changed their answers because they did want to spoil the researchers’ results.
Interestingly, all subjects who conformed underestimated the frequency with which they conformed to the group.
Asch wanted to explore two dynamics that he thought might influence conformity: group size and unanimity.
Experiment 2: Group Size
In this experiment this size of the “opposition” (i.e, number of confederates) ranged from 1 to 15. In this modification, when there was only one confederate the subjects did not change their answers but instead gave conflicting (and correct) responses. However, as the group grew the results changed:
- One confederate: almost 0% conformity
- Two confederates: 13.6% conformity
- Three confederates: 31.8% conformity
Interestingly, this positive correlation between group size and conformity rate only goes up until a group of four (i.e. three confederates, one subject). After more confederates are introduced the rate does not change and is around 30%. However, after 8 or more confederates the rate of conformity begins to drop.
Experiment 3: Unanimity
Unanimity is when all people are in agreement, so in this context it refers to the extent to which all confederates give the wrong answer. In this design, Asch introduced either another naïve subject or a confederate who was told to not give the wrong answer on the critical trials. The results showed that conformity rates dropped when this happened (the conformity rate was ¼ of that in the regular design). During post-experiment interviews it was revealed that subjects felt a sense of closeness and warmth with their “partner.”
Experiment 4: Dissent
Based on the results with a partner, Asch posed another interesting question: “Was the partner’s effect a consequence of his dissent, or was it related to his accuracy?” Dissent is going against what is commonly believed, so in this context it means breaking away from the group and giving different answers. To test the above question, Asch made more modifications. This time a confederate was told to be either a “compromising” or “extremist” dissenter.
- Compromising: going against the group but the difference in answers is close
- Extremist: going against the group and given a very different answer
Both conditions reduced conformity. Moreover, the extremist dissenter “produced a remarkable freeing of the subjects.” When there was an extreme dissenter conformity dropped to 9%.
Experiment 5: Gaining and Losing a Partner
At this point I think it’s important just to mention that all these modifications within the experiment were done on different subjects.
In this next design, Asch tested what would happen if a subject gains a fellow dissenter but then this partner decides to join the incorrect group. A confederate was told to answer correctly on the first 6 critical trials. During these trials, the subjects also had no problems going against the rest of the group and giving the correct answer. However, after 6 trials the dissenting confederate changed and began giving incorrect answers along with the rest of the group – and as a result so did the subject. Having lost the partner to the majority the subject’s conformity rate rose to a similar level as those in Experiment #1 (i.e. about 1/3).
Experiment 5b: Gaining and Losing a Partner from the Group
As a result of the questioning from the previous experiments (27 subjects in total), Asch decided to see what would happen if the partner left the room completely. It was announced at a certain point after giving the correct answer on a few trials the partner said he had an appointment with the dean and had to leave. While there were still errors made (i.e. the participant conformed), the rates were lower than when the partner joined the majority.
Experiment 6: Gradual Dissolution
Asch had all confederates begin by giving correct answers and gradually changing to incorrect ones. By the sixth trial all the confederates were now giving wrong answers. The results showed that as long as there was just one other person against the group the subject could stay independent. However, as soon as he lost all partners the conformity rates increased.
7: Degree of Inaccuracy
Asch hypothesized that if the group’s answers were wrong enough the conformity would disappear. However, even when the different in line lengths were 7 inches (18 cm) there were still participants who conformed.
The above studies provide some interesting insight into factors that influence conformity. Asch suggested the following factors might influence conformity and since this paper was published in 1955 these have been studied:
- Social and cultural factors (Bond and Smith)
- Personality and characte