The Asch Conformity Experiments

The Asch Conformity Experiments: The Line Between Independence and Conformity

The Asch Conformity Experiments

Your school is having students take their annual vision test, but to save time, they’re having multiple students go at once. In each group of four, students will go down a line and verbally give their answers. You’re at the end of the line, which means you give your answer last.

The vision test is fairly uneventful for the most part as you all answer what letter is currently being shown. Then as you’re shown what’s clearly the letter “O,” something strange happens: the first student labels it a “Q.” Then the second says, “Q” as well. So does the third.

It’s now your turn: what letter do you call out?

The Answer

Do you stick to your answer, declaring your independence, or do you yield to group conformity? If you yield, do you truly believe that the rest of the students are right, or do you just not want to stand out? Dr. Solomon Asch found answers to such queries in what would later be called the Asch Conformity Experiments.

The Asch Conformity Experiments 

The Asch Conformity Experiments were instrumental in discovering much of what we know today about the pressures of group conformity.

Asch and his colleagues studied if and how individuals give into or remain strong against group majority and the effects of the majority on beliefs and opinions.

Many variations of his experiments have been conducted since, examining the effects of task importance, gender, race, age, and culture on the results. Thus, it can be argued that Asch inspired much of the research conducted on conformity and independence.

The Experiment

In 1951 at Swarthmore College, Dr. Solomon Asch conducted his first conformity experiment using white male college students.

Groups of eight students would be shown a large card with a line on it, along with another card with lines labeled A, B, and C. Participants were asked to verbally answer which one of these lines matched the example line in length.

No optical illusions were in play here. If participants were asked to complete the task all alone, they correctly answered practically every time.

Only one member of each group was an actual test subject. The rest were actors. Groups were asked to complete 18 trials of this “perception task.” For the first two trials, the actors would give the clearly correct answer, but for the remaining 12 trials, the actors would unanimously vote for a wrong answer. 

While a majority of test subjects’ responses remained correct in the actor condition, a significant minority of over one third conformed to the actors’ wrong answers. Further investigation found that only 25% of subjects always defied majority opinion, 5% were always swayed by the group, and the remaining 70% conformed on some trials. 

Interviews with the test subjects revealed that all of them had significant doubts on the legitimacy of the group’s answers, regardless of whether they yielded to them or not.

Participants who conformed on one or more trials did so either informational conformity, i.e. they began to believe that the group must be right because so many of them were in agreement, or normative conformity, i.e.

they still believed their own assessments were right but went along with the group so as to not stand out.

Applying It

Despite the fact that only a minority of the total responses were wrong, a majority of subjects gave into group pressure at some point during the experiment.

In these trials, participants could clearly see what the correct answer was, yet almost all of them felt uncomfortable, nervous, and doubtful about going against the group.

Imagine how much harder it must be to go against the majority on a less clear-cut issue, who to vote for in an election or how to solve infrastructure problems. Furthermore, the actors making up the majority weren’t trusted officials, close friends, or family members.

Sticking to a minority opinion when the group consists of loved ones or respected and trusted authorities is no easy feat. Even in groups with only four students, three people unanimously agreeing generated the same amount of pressure for conformity. Majorities, no matter their size or makeup, are persuasive.

Now, it might not seem particularly dangerous to give into majority opinion so long as you are only displaying normative conformity. After all, you still know you’re right. Yet what good are beliefs if they’re not acted upon? Bad decisions don’t cease to be wrong just because you recognize them as such.

If you’re going to vote for a popular yet corrupt official, go along with group bullying, or steal because your friends insist you should, you’re still committing immoral acts. Your reasoning for doing so doesn’t absolve your guilt.

Conforming to an incorrect majority still makes you incorrect, regardless of why you decide to conform.

Every participant, whether they conformed or not, doubted the accuracy of the group’s judgment. If you really think you’re right, stick to your initial judgement. It won’t be easy, but making a decision you yourself are proud of is more important. Who knows, maybe you’ll inspire others to join your side.


Solomon Asch — Conformity Experiment

The Asch Conformity Experiments

By Dr. Saul McLeod, updated Dec 28, 2018

Solomon Asch conducted an experiment to investigate the extent to which social pressure from a majority group could affect a person to conform.

He believed that the main problem with Sherif's (1935) conformity experiment was that there was no correct answer to the ambiguous autokinetic experiment.  How could we be sure that a person conformed when there was no correct answer?

Asch (1951) devised what is now regarded as a classic experiment in social psychology, whereby there was an obvious answer to a line judgment task.

If the participant gave an incorrect answer it would be clear that this was due to group pressure.

Experimental Procedure

Asch used a lab experiment to study conformity, whereby 50 male students from Swarthmore College in the USA participated in a ‘vision test.’

Using a line judgment task, Asch put a naive participant in a room with seven confederates/stooges. The confederates had agreed in advance what their responses would be when presented with the line task.

The real participant did not know this and was led to believe that the other seven confederates/stooges were also real participants themselves.

Each person in the room had to state aloud which comparison line (A, B or C) was most the target line. The answer was always obvious.  The real participant sat at the end of the row and gave his or her answer last.

There were 18 trials in total, and the confederates gave the wrong answer on 12 trails (called the critical trials).  Asch was interested to see if the real participant would conform to the majority view.

Asch's experiment also had a control condition where there were no confederates, only a «real participant.»


Asch measured the number of times each participant conformed to the majority view. On average, about one third (32%) of the participants who were placed in this situation went along and conformed with the clearly incorrect majority on the critical trials.

Over the 12 critical trials, about 75% of participants conformed at least once, and 25% of participants never conformed.

In the control group, with no pressure to conform to confederates, less than 1% of participants gave the wrong answer.


Why did the participants conform so readily?  When they were interviewed after the experiment, most of them said that they did not really believe their conforming answers, but had gone along with the group for fear of being ridiculed or thought «peculiar.

A few of them said that they really did believe the group's answers were correct.

Apparently, people conform for two main reasons: because they want to fit in with the group (normative influence) and because they believe the group is better informed than they are (informational influence).

Critical Evaluation

One limitation of the study is that is used a biased sample. All the participants were male students who all belonged to the same age group. This means that the study lacks population validity and that the results cannot be generalized to females or older groups of people.

Another problem is that the experiment used an artificial task to measure conformity — judging line lengths. How often are we faced with making a judgment the one Asch used, where the answer is plain to see?

This means that the study has low ecological validity and the results cannot be generalized to other real-life situations of conformity. Asch replied that he wanted to investigate a situation where theparticipants could be in no doubt what the correct answer was. In so doing he could explore the true limits of socialinfluence.

Some critics thought the high levels of conformity found by Asch were a reflection of American, 1950's culture and told usmore about the historical and cultural climate of the USA in the 1950s than then they do about the phenomena ofconformity.

In the 1950s America was very conservative, involved in an anti-communist witch-hunt (which became knownas McCarthyism) against anyone who was thought to hold sympathetic left-wing views. Conformityto American values was expected. Support for this comes from studies in the 1970s and 1980s that show lower conformityrates (e.g., Perrin & Spencer, 1980).

Perrin and Spencer (1980) 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. They found that on only one 396 trials did an observer join the erroneous majority.

Perrin and Spencer 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 unobtrusive members of society whereas now they occupy a free questioning role.

However, one problem in comparing this study with Asch is that very different types of participants are used. Perrin andSpencer used science and engineering students who might be expected to be more independent by training when it cameto making perceptual judgments.

Finally, there are ethical issues: participants were not protected from psychological stress which may occur if they disagreed with the majority.

Evidence that participants in Asch-type situations are highly emotional was obtained by Back etal. (1963) who found that participants in the Asch situation had greatly increased levels of autonomic arousal.

This findingalso suggests that they were in a conflict situation, finding it hard to decide whether to report what they saw or to conformto the opinion of others.

Asch also deceived the student volunteers claiming they were taking part in a 'vision' test; the real purpose was to see how the 'naive' participant would react to the behavior of the confederates. However, deception was necessary to produce valid results.

Asch Conformity Video Clip

The clip below is not from the original experiment in 1951, but an acted version for television from the 1970s.

Factors Affecting Conformity

In further trials, Asch (1952, 1956) changed the procedure (i.e., independent variables) to investigate which situational factors influenced the level of conformity (dependent variable).

His results and conclusions are given below:

Group Size

Asch (1956) found that group size influenced whether subjects conformed. The bigger the majority group (no ofconfederates), the more people conformed, but only up to a certain point.

With one other person (i.e., confederate) in the group conformity was 3%, with two others it increased to 13%, and with three or more it was 32% (or 1/3).

Optimum conformity effects (32%) were found with a majority of 3. Increasing the size of the majority beyondthree did not increase the levels of conformity found. Brown and Byrne (1997) suggest that people might suspectcollusion if the majority rises beyond three or four.

According to Hogg & Vaughan (1995), the most robust finding is that conformity reaches its full extent with 3-5person majority, with additional members having little effect.

Lack of Group Unanimity / Presence of an Ally

As conformity drops off with five members or more, it may be that it’s the unanimity of the group (theconfederates all agree with each other) which is more important than the size of the group.

In another variation of the original experiment, Asch broke up the unanimity (total agreement) of the group byintroduced a dissenting confederate.

Asch (1956) found that even the presence of just one confederate thatgoes against the majority choice can reduce conformity as much as 80%.

For example, in the original experiment, 32% of participants conformed on the critical trials, whereas when one confederate gave the correct answer on all the critical trials conformity dropped to 5%.

This was supported in a study by Allen and Levine (1968). In their version of the experiment, they introduced adissenting (disagreeing) confederate wearing thick-rimmed glasses – thus suggesting he was slightly visuallyimpaired.

Even with this seemingly incompetent dissenter conformity dropped from 97% to 64%. Clearly, thepresence of an ally decreases conformity.

The absence of group unanimity lowers overall conformity as participants feel less need for social approval of the group (re: normative conformity).

Difficulty of Task

When the (comparison) lines (e.g., A, B, C) were made more similar in length it was harder to judge the correct answer and conformity increased.

When we are uncertain, it seems we look to others for confirmation. The more difficult the task, the greater the conformity.

Answer in Private

When participants were allowed to answer in private (so the rest of the group does not know their response) conformity decreases.

This is because there are fewer group pressures and normative influence is not as powerful, as there is no fear of rejection from the group.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2018, Dec 28). Solomon Asch — Conformity Experiment. Retrieved Retrieved from

APA Style References

Allen, V. L., & Levine, J. M. (1968). Social support, dissent and conformity. Sociometry, 138-149.

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.

Asch, S. E. (1952). Group forces in the modification and distortion of judgments.

Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological monographs: General and applied, 70(9), 1-70.

Back, K. W., Bogdonoff, M. D., Shaw, D. M., & Klein, R. F. (1963). An interpretation of experimental conformity through physiological measures. Behavioral Science, 8(1), 34.

Longman, W., Vaughan, G., & Hogg, M. (1995). Introduction to social psychology.

Perrin, S., & Spencer, C. (1980). The Asch effect: a child of its time? Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 32, 405-406.

Sherif, M., & Sherif, C. W. (1953). Groups in harmony and tension. New York: Harper & Row.

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