Conformity refers to the practice of going along with prevailing social standards or attitudes. In the 1950’s, Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments in which he studied the willingness of individual subjects to conform to group answers, even when those answers were obviously wrong.
In the experiment, naive subjects were told that they were participating in a vision test. In reality though, each subject was placed in a group of confederates for the conformity experiments. Each confederate was fully aware of the true purpose of the study.
Asch did not expect most subjects to conform to group pressure when the answers were obviously wrong. However the results showed that while 24% of the participants did not conform on any trial, 75% did conform at least once and 5% conformed every time. Across all critical trials there was an average conformity of 37% for answers which were blatantly incorrect.
Asch discovered that conformity increases as group size increases, plateauing at about 4 or 5 confederates. Increasing the number of confederates beyond this amount did not have any significant effect on subject conformity. He also highlighted that conformity can drop by up to 80% if just ONE confederate gives the correct answer.
Why were the subjects so eager to conform? When interviewed after the experiment, most subjects said that they did not actually believe that their conforming answers were correct, but they had gone along with the group to avoid being ridiculed or thought of as “peculiar.” A few of the subjects claimed that they honestly believed that the group’s answers were correct.
The feedback from the subjects suggest that people conform for two main reasons:
1. to fit in with the group (normative influence)
2. they believe the group is better informed than they are (informational influence).
The Asch conformity experiments (also called the Asch paradigm) show that while group pressure exerts powerful influence on the decisions we make, a dissenting minority can also make its point keenly felt.
So if your friend jumped off a cliff, would you go and jump off a cliff too? Probably not. But if 4 or 5 of your friends jumped off a cliff, then who knows? You just might give the venture a second thought.
Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment. In H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, leadership and men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.
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