If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Asch conformity studies (Asch line studies)

Visit us (http://www.khanacademy.org/science/healthcare-and-medicine) for health and medicine content or (http://www.khanacademy.org/test-prep/mcat) for MCAT related content. These videos do not provide medical advice and are for informational purposes only. The videos are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read or seen in any Khan Academy video. Created by Brooke Miller.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

- One of the most famous experiments about conformity are the Asch line experiments, which were conducted in the 1950s. And I want to go over a few things about Solomon Asch who was the experimenter, before I go over the experiments. First of all, he was part of a group known as the Gestalt psychologists. And they believed that it was not possible to understand human psychology, or human behavior by breaking it down into parts. Instead, people must be understood as whole. They they can't really be understood without thinking about the times and situations in which they are a part. And I've written a quote here from Solomon Asch from around the time that he conducted these studies, where he writes, "Most social acts" "have to be understood in their setting," "and lose meaning if isolated." "Now error in thinking about social facts is more serious" "than the failure to see their place and function." And this is something that we need to keep in mind when we think about not only Solomon Asch and his conformity experiments, but also all of the other studies on conformity and obedience that we will discuss. Asch was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1907 to a Jewish family. And migrated to the United States in the 1920s at the age of 13. So even though he was not in Poland during World War II, during the holocaust, we need to think about how these world events might have influenced his studies of conformity. And why he and the other psychologists might have thought that this was an important topic to study. When Asch began his studies, he was primarily interested in understanding how group behavior can influence the behavior of the individual. And, what aspects of this group influence might be the most important. So, let's talk about these studies. And let's say that you are one of the participants who is signed up to take part in what has been described as a simple perceptual study. And say that when you show up for the study, you find that there are a number of other participants who are also there to participate with you. So you all sit down at a long table and the experimenter starts to explain the experiment to you. And it seems incredibly boring. The experimenter holds up a card with the target line on it, and three comparison lines. And the participant needs to figure out which comparison line matches the target line. And for each card, you're supposed to go down the line one by one, and give your answer. And the first trial starts, and everybody gives what is obviously the right answer. And you give it, too. The second trial goes along just as the first one. With the correct answer being just as obvious. But on the third trial, something really strange happens. The answer seems just as obvious on this card as it did the two cards before. But this time, the first participant gives the wrong answer. And you think, okay maybe he is just messing with the experimenter because he's really bored. But then the second participant gives the same answer. And the third one. And on down the line. And then it gets to you. What do you say? The answer that seems to you to be the obviously correct answer? Or the seemingly incorrect response given by the other members of your group? Do you go with what you think you know? Or do you go with the majority? And this strange situation doesn't just happen once, it happens across a number of trials. So, what would you do? When I ask this question in class, most students tell me that they would not conform. That they would always give the correct answer, even when the majority was giving the incorrect one. And you might be thinking the same thing, and if I'm being honest with myself, I would probably say that as well. But this is actually not what the researchers found. Even though solitary participants, so participants answering without a group, made errors less than one percent of the time, in the presence of a group, 75 percent of participants conformed and gave the incorrect answer at least one. And 37 percent of participants conformed and gave the incorrect answer every time the group did. And there are a few things I want to mention about this study before I go on. The first is that unbeknownst to you, unbeknownst to all the individuals who participated in this study, all of the other participants who were participating, so all of the individuals here in blue, were actually confederates, meaning that they were actually in on the experiment the whole time. And were instructed by the experimenter to give the incorrect answer. So, the real purpose of this study was to tell whether or not the real participant, so the magenta guy here, would go along with the group when that group was making an obviously incorrect decision. I also want to note that there were 18 trials in total. So, there were 18 different cards. And the confederates unanimously answered incorrectly on 12 of them. Another really important thing to note about this study was that there was no obvious pressure to conform, or not to conform with the group. There was no prize for conforming. No punishment for not. And there was also no prize for doing well on the study. And no punishment for doing poorly. They were simply seated with the other participants at a table. So, keep in mind that there was no actual pressure to conform, only perceived pressure. So why would that participants of the study go against their better judgement and conform with the group? When they were interviewed following the experiment, when they were asked why they had conformed, most participants noted that the answers that they had given were incorrect. But they went along with them because they feared being ridiculed by the group. And we would refer to this as Normative Social Influence. Which is altering our behaviors so that we better fit in with those around us. So they saw what the correct answer was, they knew that it was the correct answer, but they went against it regardless. Other individuals noted that they conformed because they doubted their own responses. They reasoned that if all of the other participants at the table were giving a certain answer, then that one must be the correct one. And we refer to this as Informational Social Influence. And this is when we change our behavior because we assume that others are better informed. That they know more about what's going on than we do. So they saw what they thought was the correct answer, but then after hearing the responses of the group, they changed their minds. And as a result, they gave the same answer that the group gave. So they saw the correct response, they decided that they themselves were wrong, and so they deferred to the group's judgement. But for some participants in the study, the errors that they made seemed to be at the perceptual level. They really, truly believed that the answers given by the majority were correct. So, unlike those who deferred to Normative Social Influence or Informational Social Influence, these individuals were never consciously aware that there was any dissonance involved with the judgements. So they really thought that the group gave the correct answer. And they decided that that was the correct one. And so they gave that answer as well. But what about those who did not conform? What were their reasons? When they were interviewed afterwards, some of them were really confident. They were really sure that their perceptions and their judgements were correct. Others weren't so confident. Meaning that there were some participants who felt a lot of doubt and unease. But even so, they stuck with their own answers. And before I moved onto the next topic, I want to take a moment to talk about some of the problems with this study. For example, the participants all came from the same limited population. They were all male undergraduates who were all around the same age, and the same university culture. So, the original conformity studies didn't consider the fact that maybe women or individuals in minority groups, or individuals from different cultures, or different age ranges might have reacted differently. Also, even though the participants thought that they were coming in for a study about visual perception, they did know that they were coming in for a study. And as someone who has participated in studies before, as most college students who have taken psychology courses have, I probably would have been maybe a bit suspicious about the study. Especially when the people who I thought were the other participants, started answering questions incorrectly. I probably would have conformed at least once, just to see what would happen when I did. One thing we always look for in studies is whether or not they have Ecological Validity. Or whether or not the conditions in the study mimic the conditions in the real world. Because if they don't, if they don't approximate real life, then we can be really limited in what conclusions we can draw from it. Judging the length of a line in a lab doesn't really relate to how we think about conformity in the real world. Another thing that we have to think about are Demand Characteristics. Which describes how participants will sometimes change their behavior in order to match with the expectations of the experimenter. So it's possible that the participants in this original study conformed not because they felt any group pressures, but because that's what they thought the experimenter wanted them to do. But even with these problems, there is still a lot that can be learned from this study. And one thing in particular that I really want you to think about, is that this study got 75 percent of individuals to conform without any external pressure. And I want you to take a moment to think about how much more powerful the experiment would have been if there was pressure. If there was a reward or a punishment. Or maybe if your friends or professors, or teachers were the confederates instead of just random college students. Think about whether or not these factors would increase or decrease the likelihood that you would conform.