The Asch conformity experiment: when social pressure can
How many times have we heard that someone has no personality because he ends up doing exactly the same as his group of friends. Psychology, bitter enemy of simple and lazy explanations, examined during the last century what is the influence of the group on the individual.
The most popular and influential studies in this regard are probably those that were carried out during the investigations of Solomon Asch .
This social psychologist studied the phenomenon of conformity, which is the tendency of the individual to modify his response to an object by bringing it closer to that expressed by a majority of individuals within a group , through an experimental situation. Do you think you could have resisted the group pressure in that same situation?
- Related article: "What is Social Psychology?"
Previous background to Asch
Asch is not the first to investigate social compliance within a group . There were others like Sheriff who twenty years before studied it using ambiguous stimuli. He formed groups of three people in a dark room with a single point of light projected on a wall. This point seems to move due to the movements of the body, but having no reference points creates the illusion that the point moves by itself. These three participants should give an estimate of how much the point moves.
Two of the participants are placed because they give similar estimates in solitary, while the third estimates different. The result is that the latter brings his estimates closer to those of his other two colleagues, given that the stimulus is ambiguous. So, in the face of uncertainty, the individual tends to use the opinion of the majority . In this sense, Asch takes this study as a starting point and goes further using an unambiguous stimulus.
Another precursor of the Asch experiments is Leon Festinger's theory. According to Festinger, judgments must have a basis on which their validity rests. When it comes to judgments about physical reality, to give a valid answer it is enough to examine the object. This means that the individual does not need to know the response of others to know if their own answer is valid, unless it is social judgments.
- Maybe you're interested: "The Stanford Prison Experiment by Philip Zimbardo"
The Asch experiments
Asch, who thinks that the phenomenon of conformity also occurs before objective physical stimuli, and that Sheriff does not address these stimuli because the one in his experiments is ambiguous , he designs his own research in this line.
In the original experiment, Asch forms a group composed of a student and several collaborators of the researcher who pose as subjects. The task consists of the researcher presenting a sheet on which three horizontal bars of different sizes are printed, and each subject must say aloud which of them is the highest. The collaborators are prepared to respond correctly in the first trials, but as the situation progresses they begin to make mistakes and indicate a bar that clearly is not the highest.
The subject who does not know what is happening starts responding correctly, as he thinks, but as the others insist on indicating the wrong bar, their responses begin to be the same as those of others. Thus, it is concluded that the phenomenon of conformity is observable in situations in which the stimulus on which a judgment must be issued is objective.
When interviewing the subjects who had gone through the experiment, they explained that despite knowing with certainty what was the correct answer, they adjusted to the expectations of others for fear of being ridiculed in some way. Some of them even they affirmed think that the answers were really correct .
- Related article: "Spiral of silence: what is it and what are its causes?"
Not content with this result, Asch carried out similar experiments with minor modifications to see how it was possible to break compliance in the responses. Under the same paradigm, he introduced a series of variations that showed very interesting results.
In one of the conditions, he introduced an "ally" into the group. Apart from the subject who does not know anything, another subject or a researcher is introduced who must give the correct answers independently of the others. It is observed that when the subject sees that he is not the only one who thinks differently from the rest, compliance decreases drastically . In some way, the presence of another minority opinion validates its own.
However, when this ally is removed in the middle of the experiment, the subject again suffers the effects of compliance. Although during the first half of the experiment he managed to resist social pressure, when he loses his source of validation, he again takes the majority opinion as a guide.
In addition, he observed that the greater the number of people in the group, the more powerful the conformity. In small groups, the minority opinion does not suffer as much pressure to change as when three or four other people are added. Other factors such as writing the answer instead of saying it out loud and exposing oneself to criticism or ridicule, explicit or not, favor resistance to conformity.
Why does compliance occur?
The first explanations considered that the social influence was produced through an imitation of the behavior of others, which in turn was based on processes of suggestion and contagion that occur in group contexts. It is considered that this type of contexts facilitate the spread and dissemination of ideas , and imitation allows the individual to become social.
However, from Asch's experiments, conformity is explained by the asymmetry between the target and the source of influence. The subject or target recognizes the power of a source (a majority, for example) and depends on it to obtain the correct information in ambiguous situations and to know what are the rules that must be followed to maintain a positive relationship with others.
When we talk about the subject looking at the opinion of the majority to maintain a response adapted to reality because the situation is ambiguous, we are talking about information dependence. On the other hand, when we say that the subject is fixed in the opinion of the majority to know what is the behavior that must follow to get the approval of the others , we talk about regulatory dependence.
In this way, while Sheriff's experiments have a greater presence of informational dependence because the stimuli are ambiguous, in the Asch experiments the influence is more normative. Although the subject knows with certainty the correct information, he obtains from the rest of the group information about which answer is the one approved by the group and acts in a coherent way with this.