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Study notes

Conformity - Asch (1951)

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Asch (1951) conducted one of the most famous laboratory experiments examining conformity. He wanted to examine the extent to which social pressure from a majority, could affect a person to conform.

Asch’s sample consisted of 50 male students from Swarthmore College in America, who believed they were taking part in a vision test. Asch used a line judgement task, where he placed on real naïve participants in a room with seven confederates (actors), who had agreed their answers in advance. The real participant was deceived and was led to believe that the other seven people were also real participants. The real participant always sat second to last.

In turn, each person had to say out loud which line (A, B or C) was most like the target line in length.

Unlike Jenness’ experiment, the correct answer was always obvious. Each participant completed 18 trials and the confederates gave the same incorrect answer on 12 trials, called critical trials. Asch wanted to see if the real participant would conform to the majority view, even when the answer was clearly incorrect.

Asch measured the number of times each participant conformed to the majority view. On average, the real participants conformed to the incorrect answers on 32% of the critical trials. 74% of the participants conformed on at least one critical trial and 26% of the participants never conformed. Asch also used a control group, in which one real participant completed the same experiment without any confederates. He found that less than 1% of the participants gave an incorrect answer.

Asch interviewed his participants after the experiment to find out why they conformed. Most of the participants said that they knew their answers were incorrect, but they went along with the group in order to fit in, or because they thought they would be ridiculed. This confirms that participants conformed due to normative social influence and the desire to fit in.

Evaluation of Asch

Asch used a biased sample of 50 male students from Swarthmore College in America. Therefore, we cannot generalise the results to other populations, for example female students, and we are unable to conclude if female students would have conformed in a similar way to male students. As a result Asch’s sample lacks population validity and further research is required to determine whether males and females conform differently

Furthermore, it could be argued that Asch’s experiment has low levels of ecological validity. Asch’s test of conformity, a line judgement task, is an artificial task, which does not reflect conformity in everyday life. Consequently, we are unable to generalise the results of Asch to other real life situations, such as why people may start smoking or drinking around friends, and therefore these results are limited in their application to everyday life.

Finally, Asch’s research is ethically questionable. He broke several ethical guidelines, including: deception and protection from harm. Asch deliberately deceived his participants, saying that they were taking part in a vision test and not an experiment on conformity. Although it is seen as unethical to deceive participants, Asch’s experiment required deception in order to achieve valid results. If the participants were aware of the true aim they would have displayed demand characteristics and acted differently. In addition, Asch’s participants were not protected from psychological harm and many of the participants reporting feeling stressed when they disagreed with the majority. However, Asch interviewed all of his participants following the experiment to overcome this issue.

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