Studies of conformity

Studiesof conformifv
Sherif (1935)Conformify in an ambiguoussituation
Sherif investigatedthe influenceof conformity by using a phenomenonknown as the
autokinetic effect.If a stationarypinpointof light is viewedin a completelydark room it
appears to move becausethe eye lacks a stable frame of reference. Sherif asked
participants(who were unawareof this effect) to sit alone in a dark room and focus on a
singlepoint of light which would seemto jump then disappear;it would then reappeara
couple of secondslater. The participantswere requestedto give repeatedestimatesof
how far the light moved. Over the courseof 100 trials, eachindividual tendedto be fairly
consistentin their estimates(for example, two inches) but there was great variation
betweenparticipants(some estimatedas much as 12 inches,others as little as one inchthis was in the days before centimetreswere used regularly so I'll conform to the
textbooksand talk in inches).
A few days later participantswere put in the room in groups of three and askedto
give their estimatesout loud. As they heardone another'sestimates,their estimatesbegan
to converge until they were virtually identical. The graph below demonstratesthe
estimatesof one particularthree-persongroup.
Trial First
ltt Group
Trial Third
SubjectI Subject
I - I '
Fourth 100
Mean estimatesfor a group of three people
Thesesharedestimateshad a lasting influence.Rohrer et al (1954) found that even a
year after being involved in such a study, participantswho made the estimatesalone
would use the group noffn establishedso long ago. This indicatesthat the participants
genuinely believed that their estimateswere accurate;they were not simply making a
judgement similar to that of others in order to avoid embarrassment-their changeof
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opinionwas internalised.In very ambiguoussituationssuch as this, peoplestrive to be
accurateby usingthejudgementsof orhers.
Evaluatton.'Sherif has beencriticisedfor using a situationthat was ambiguous,unusual
and unlikely to reflect a real life situation.In his defence,however, there are many
everydaysituationsin which we are not sure of the correctanswer and turn to othersfor
guidance.If you arenot surewhat is the quickestway of doing somethingon a compurer,
you ask for guidancefrom someonewho you trustto know more than you do. If a sicond
personagrees,you are evenmorelikely to be convincedby the advice.
There were three conditionsprevailing in Sherifs study that stackedthe deck in
favour of conformity-high ambiguity,no physicalmeansof testingreality and no single
correctanswer.Despiteargumentsto the contrary,theseconditionsdo prevailoutsidethe
laboratoryand often involve importantdecisions-the best site for u po*.r station;the
safestdesignof a car seat;the bestway of testingmedicines.Ratherthan a criticism,we
shouldregardthe type of situationusedby Sherif as a limitation- he did not investigate
conformityto unambiguoussituationsor to opinionsandattitudes.
We will now tum our attentionto the effect of conformityin situationsthat are clear
cut and unambiguous.
A s c h ( 1 9 5 1 ,1 9 5 6 )
of the participantsin Sherif s study was due to
Asch believedthat the suggestibility'
the taskbeingambiguous;he believedthat socialinfluencewould be virtually eliminated
when the task was unambiguousand the answerclearto everyone.His findings did not
quite correspondto his expectations.
Asch led participantsto believethatthey weretakingpart in a study of the perception
of line length.In the originalstudy,the naive participant,a male student,was sat rounda
table with six othersin the secondto last position.Eachindividual was askedin turn to
judge the length of a standardline by cornparingit to threeothers and then statingthe
answerout loud and in order round the table.The task was very easy-only thosewith
extremelypoor eyesightwould havehad a problemestimatingthe correctanswer.
Thelinesusedin Asch'sstudv
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of the
Unknown to the single participant,all the other studentswere confederates
Imagine you are
experimenter,primed to give the wrong answeron certaincrucial trials.
the answer you
that single genuineparticipant. On the first few trials, everyone
simple if a
expectand you ugr.. with them, probablyjudging the exerciseas extremely
little boring. Th; all of a suddin the first person gives a wrong
you've had time to take this in the secondpersonhas giv.enthe same incorrect
do you answer
And so it goes on. you feel uncomfortable,confusedand embarrassedgo
along with the
with what seemsto you to be the obvious correct answer
judgementmadebY everyoneelse?
cartoon of Asch's studY,bY RoYHunt
the incorrect
In Asch's original study, there were 12 critical trials per participantand
answerwas giv.i on n.*iy 37 per cent of all trials. Three quartersof_the
25 per cent
yieldedto grouppressureuf l.urionce; half on six or more of the trials. Only
of their
lf tr,. part[ipants consistentlystuck to their guns and did not deny
The 37% refers
own .y.r. (Be careful to distinguishbetweenthesetwo setsof findings.
tells nothing about
to the total numberof cruciat triats on which peopleconformedbut
percentageof people
the number of participantswho conformed.ihe 75% refers to the
who conformedat leastone)which people
Asch checkedthat the task was easyby settingup a control condition in
judged the line lengths when alone. In this condition there was a negligible number of
wrong answers(0.7%).There seemsto be no doubt that when participants
contrary to the
wrong answers,theY must have known that they were giving an answer
one that they perceivedto be correct.
Why did so many people conform when the task was so easY?Asch
participantsand was given a variety of answers'
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t^Jbd;dfrs"ti ,o(hcryg"h
somewent aiong '"viththe group becausethe;rwere bewiideredand
afraid of looking
stupidor ridiculous;they'simpryrvantedto be like everyoneeise.
somethoughtthey were correctbut lverenot sure,
otherssaid they beganto doubt their own eyes and that the
majcrity rvasgenerally
Even thosewho remainedindependentsaid they' feh extremely
tried to work out exactlywhat was happening.
On the basisof thesefindings, Asch concludedthat 'people submit
painlesslyto externaimanipulationby suggesrion'(1955,p.
iz1 u, did, however,point
out that independence
is alsoan option and that rveneedto considerthe conditionswhich
encourageand discourageconformity. With this in mind,
he cond.ucted.several
variationson his original study,the designand findingsof which
we will now consider.
Varyingthe size of the maioriQ. By varying the number of confederates,
Asch found
that conformity d.roppedto an extremelylow level (less than 4%)
when there was
only one confederate,but rosequite shaqplyonce the participantwas
in the minority.
With two confederates,
the conformityrut. was 13.6%,with threeit was nearly 3z%.
After that it rose very little, reachingthe maximum in a seven-person
groups.Even a
majority of 15 did not increaseit further.This indicatesthat a majority
of threeis the
criticalpoint and afterthat increasesin the majority have little effect.
2 . One confederateansweredcorrectly. Conformityiates droppeddramaticaliy
to 6 per
3 . One confederateanswereddiferently but incorrectly. Conformitydid
not drop as
sharplybut was considerablyreduced.
This indicatesthat evenif no-on.
agreeswith your judgement,you feel betterableto expressit if you
".ruulfvare not
the only
4 . The task was made more dfficult. As you might expect,
conformity rose quite
Evaluation"Asch's researchon conformity has demonstrated
that conformity still occurs
in situationsin which the correctansweris obvious.He therefore
showed convincingly
and to his own surprisethat group pressuresto conform are
much stronger than had
Asch hasbeencriticisedfor usingrnalecollegestudentsas his participants,
is not a representative
sampleof the population.Hi, resultsmay also not generalise
other times, to other groups such as women and to other cultures.
We will consider
studiesdealingwith thesefactorsshortly.
Asch (and Sherif) only investigatedconformity under conditions
in which physical
stimuli were beingjudged and not in situationsthat challengeddeeply
held anitudesand
values'We cannotbe sure thatjudgementsaboutphysicalstimuli
are liable to be subject
to social pressurein the same way as are attitudes.Their results
cannot thereforebe
to suchsituations.
One of the problemsof any study conductedin the confinesof a laboratory
or similar
artificial environmentis that it may lack ecologicalvalidify, that
is, it may not reflect
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s 000)
in a real worid situation.Aronson& Carlsmith(i986) havedistinguished
ways in which laboratoryexperimentation
ma,)-lack realism. Cne is experimental
realism. An experimentis said to be realisticif the sin:ationwhich it presentsto the
participantis realistic,if it engagesthem and has an impact on them. Robson(i993)
arguesthat Asch's studyon confonnit.vshowedexperimentairealismin the sensethat the
which causedthem to show strongsignsof
participantswere undergoingan experience
tension and anriety, indicating that they were reacting to the situation in the same
realistickind of way they rvouldoutsidea laboratory.
The other kind of realismidentifiedby Aronson & Carlsmithis that of mundane
in the laboratoryareliable to occur
realism, the extentto which the eventsencountered
in the outsideworld. Asch's study could be criticisedon its lack of mundanerealism
becausethe study involved a very simplestructuredsituationwhereasany such situation
in a real life sening would be far more complexand ambiguousand would probably
resultin findingswhich weremuch lessconclusive.
ethicalproblemswith Asch's research.Firstly, as in many
There are considerable
social psychologicalstudies,the participantswere deceivedas to the purposeof the
study.Secondly,whetheror not participantsconformed,they felt very uncomfortableand
were concernedabout appearingfoolish.The physiologicaleffectsinvolved in such a
by Bogdonoffet al (1961).who foundthatarousallevels
were high in all the participantsonce they were faced with the opposingjudgementsof
Thesehigh levelsof arousalwere maintainedin participantswho held
the confederates.
firm to their own judgementsbut did drop in thosew'hoconformed.
Crutchfield (1954,55): conformify in private
Crutchf-reldused a method of studying conformity that was much more etficient and
ethicalthan that usedby Asch. It was more practicalbecausemany participantscould be
testedquickly on a large variety of tasks.It was more ethical becauseparticipantswere
not put in such an embarrassingsituation(althoughthey were deceivedas to the purpose
of the study).
In these studies,participants(usualiy five at a time) sat in separatebooths with a
panel of switches and lights in front of them. One set of lights, when illuminated,
indicated the supposedresponsesof the other four participantsand a set of switches
provided them with the meansof giving their own responsefrom a multiple-choice
picturesor otherstimuli were projectedon to a screenin
front of them and they were requiredto give their responselast, so they had alreadyseen
the supposedresponsesof others.Theseresponseswere entirely false, the lights having
been operatedby the experimenter.In this way a bogus majority was establishedon
certaincrucial items (obviouslynot on all of them or this would alert the participantsthat
somethingfishy was involved).
Over 600 participantswere tested, including students,women and army officers
attending a three-day assessmentprogramme. The stimuli used were quite varied,
itemssimilarto thoseon I.Q. testsand onessimilarto those
usedby Asch.
In many ways the resultsobtainedby Crutchfieldwere evenmore dramaticthan those
of Asch. Someof them areas follows.
. Participantswere askedto comparethe size of a circle and star,the circle being much
the largerof the two. 46%conformedto the inconect mijority response.
The group of anny officers had all said privately that they believedthey would make
session!).Yet no fewer than
good leaders(as you would expecton an assessment
37% agreedwith a bogusmajority statementthat they would not make a good leader.
When the bogusmajority agreedwith the statement'Freespeechbeing a privilege
ratherthan a right, it is properfor a societyto suspendfree speechwhen it feels itself
threatened', 58Yoof studentparticipantsagreed.This is a very worrying finding.
On Asch-typeperceptualtasks,conformity was 30% (it is surprisingthat this was so
closeto Asch's own findings,given the relativeprivacy of the situation).
Evaluation: As already mentioned,Crutchfield's study was more efficient and ethical
than was Asch's, but there are still some ethical concerns.Obviously deceptionwas
involved and there was evidenceof discomfort and embalrassment.For example,when
interviewedafter the study, someof the participantswho had kept their judgementsand
had their self confidenceseverelyshaken.
not conformedat all had nevertheless
Another problem with thesestudiesis that a substantialproportion of the participants
(17%) indicatedthat they knew what was going on and were aware of the deception.
Obviously this would affect the results,but it was not clear from the researchpaperjust
what this affect may have been.
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