A partial and non-evaluative history of the Asch effect
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- In Asch's classic experiment an observer had to say which of three lines was equal in line to a standard. The lines were very easy to distinguish and if tested on their own observers made few if any errors. When they were tested in a group who gave their judgements publicly and all the rest of the group gave the wrong answer, three-quarters of the naive observers conformed at least once by responding incorrectly. Overall about one-third of the overall responses were conforming ones. As Eiser (1987) says 'for Asch, the important finding was that there was any conformity at all'
This study become a classic and is to be found in all texts on psychology.
However, studies carried out from 1980 onwards (listed below) have undermined this classic status - or at least proferred alternative explanations for the amount of confomity found.
- Perrin and Spencer (1980, 1981) suggested that the Asch effect was a "child of its time". They carried out an exact replication of the original Asch experiment using engineering, mathematics and chemistry students as subjects. The results were clear cut: on only one out of 396 trials did an observer join the erroneous majority. They argue that a cultural change has taken place in the value placed on conformity and obedience and in the position of students. In America in the 1950s students were unobstrusive members of society whereas now they occupy a free questionning role.
(see Perrin, S & Spencer, C, 1980. 'The Asch effect - a child of its time'. Bulletin of the BPS, 33, 405-406).
- Nicholson, N., Cole, S. & Rocklin, T (1985). 'Conformity in the Asch situation: a comparison between contemporary British and US Students'. British Journal of Social Psychology, 24, 59-63. Nicholson et al were more positive. they found while the number of error responses obtained was significantly less that those reported by Asch, it was also significantly greater than zero (12 out of the UK sample of 38 and 8 of the US sample of 21 conformed at least once). British and American students did not differ in their responses to unanimous peer-group opinion
- Lalancette, M-F & Standing, L.G (1990). 'Asch fails again'. Social Behavior and Personality; 18(1) 7-12
Lalancette and Standing modified the social conformity paradigm of Asch (1956) to (1) make the test stimuli more ambiguous and (2) increase the likelihood of obtaining conformity in an experiment with 40 undergraduates. With the same aim, anonymous and individuated conditions were used. As with a previous attempt to replicate Asch
(Perrin and Spencer, 1981), no conformity was observed.
They conclude that the Asch effect appears to be an unpredictable phenomenon rather than a stable tendency of human behavior.
- Neto, F. (1995). 'Conformity and independence revisited'. Social Behavior and Personality, 23 (3), 217-222
This study aimed at investigating whether conformity in the experimental setting suggested by Asch was particularly related to American culture and less likely to be replicable elsewhere - e.g. in Portugal - as has been suggested more recently. Thus, Asch's classic conformity and independence experiment was replicated, using women psychology students in a Portuguese university as minority of one, unanimous majority group, and control participants. The original procedure was re-enacted as similarly as possible using a computer program. Among participants in the experimental condition 59% conformed at least once, 28% yielded three to twelve times. Among participants in the control condition 27% erred at least once, 3.3% made more than three errors. The differences between the experimental and control group was significant. Thus this shows that a degree of conformity to a unanimous peer-group opinion remains observable. Participants reported considerable distress under the group pressure.