Solomon Asch’s Conformity Experiment: Why Humans Yield

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What was Solomon Asch’s conformity experiment? Why do people fold under peer pressure?

The Psychology Book notes that one of the most influential experiments in social psychology is the Asch Paradigm. Created by Solomon Asch, the experiment was founded to see how easily people conform to others in a group, even if they know they’re wrong.

Let’s look at what this experiment tells us about human conformity, with additional insight from the Stanford Prison experiment.

Conformity and Obedience

The authors note that while Lewin focused on change, other scientists like Polish-American psychologist Solomon Asch studied humans’ tendency toward conformity. Solomon Asch’s conformity experiment was called the Asch Paradigm, in which participants were placed into groups and asked to identify which of three lines on a card matched the length of a line on another card. They did a total of 18 such questions, each called a “trial.” The participants didn’t know that the other members of the group were actors instructed to give incorrect answers. 

Asch found that 75% of participants conformed to the group’s incorrect answers on at least one trial but that none of them conformed on every trial. He also found that 26% of participants never conformed and always gave the right answer despite the group’s dissent, suggesting that certain people are less prone to conformity than others. Additionally, he found that if just one of the actors provided a correct answer, the actual subjects were much more likely to also provide the correct answer—this suggests that if even a small minority diverges from the group, it makes others much less likely to conform as well.

Why Do We Conform?

Others have further explored the factors that affect conformity in groups. Some research suggests that people who don’t conform to a group are often ostracized by that group and that the pressure to conform tends to be highest during the period of adolescence, when the desire to be liked by peers is at its peak. 

Some researchers have also distinguished between different types of conformity. For instance, informational conformity occurs when the conformist believes others have more information and are thus better equipped to make decisions about how to behave. However, the type of conformity revealed by Asch’s Paradigm is called normative conformity, and it occurs when the conformist agrees with the group even though they know the group is wrong. People often engage in normative conformity in order to show cohesiveness or avoid conflict, but it can have dangerous consequences when it leads individuals to look the other way when they know other members of their group are doing things that are wrong.

Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment

According to the authors, one of the leading questions that arose in social psychology after World War II was the question of how ordinary people could be convinced to carry out acts of extreme cruelty, as occurred during the Holocaust. In 1971, American psychologist Phillip Zimbardo conducted further research into conformity and what prompts people to behave cruelly with his famous Stanford Prison experiment.

For this experiment, Zimbardo placed 24 male college students who were deemed mentally healthy into a fake prison scenario. The students were randomly assigned the role of either prisoner or guard, and the guards were given total control over the prisoners. All of the guards quickly began abusing their authority and mistreating the prisoners, and conditions grew so bad that the experiment had to be ended early after less than a week. Zimbardo’s experiment suggests that people will adjust their behavior to fit social roles that they’re assigned, and that even ordinary, mentally healthy people will behave cruelly when given positions of total authority.

Implications of Obedience and Conformity for Nazism

Due to the ethical issues that arose, Zimbardo’s experiment had to be cut short early and couldn’t be replicated, leading to questions of how representative Zimbardo’s sample population was. One commonality the participants shared was that they elected to sign up for a study based on life in prison as opposed to a more general psychological study. Additional research by psychologists suggests that people who chose to sign up for such a prison study were more likely to be aggressive, to approve of social hierarchies and submit to authorities, and to view themselves as superior. They were also less likely to be empathetic or altruistic than the general population. 

According to some psychologists, this research suggests that Nazis may not have been as “ordinary” as they claimed, that people with cruel and antisocial tendencies may have been more likely to become Nazis, and that the claim that they were “just following orders”—also known as the Nuremberg defense—can’t adequately explain or excuse the atrocities they committed.
Solomon Asch’s Conformity Experiment: Why Humans Yield

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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