5.3 Groups and conformity
In the 1950s, Solomon Asch conducted what are now regarded as classic experiments on how individuals can be pressured to conform to a group's standard. The results of his experiments dramatically showed the influence of group pressure.
Activity 11: Conformity and group pressure
The following passage describes one of Asch's experiments. As you read, try to imagine that you are a participant yourself in the experiment and guess how you might have responded.
You are seated round a table with six other people taking part in an experiment on the ways we perceive things. Your group is shown a picture of a straight line. You're all then given a picture of three more lines of different lengths. You are asked to pick out the line equal in length to the original one, as below.
Is this line length similar to line 1, 2 or 3?
Each person at the round table identifies their own choice out loud – you're the last but one to speak. The first five people opt for line 2. Do you agree with them?
Can you think of one occasion in real life where you have been subjected to some form of group pressure? Perhaps you were in a pub and your friends pressed you to have another drink and stay a bit longer, when really you wanted to leave. What happened and what did you do? What, if anything, would have swayed you to go along with the group? Write some brief notes describing your experience.
In Asch's experiment this exercise was done many times with different line lengths. What you won't have realised is that the people in the experimental group, bar one participant, were actually in league with the experimenter and occasionally gave the same false answers deliberately! What was being tested was whether or not the one genuine participant felt the group pressure to conform to the others' opinions. So, did you?
Of course it is impossible to say with this paper exercise whether or not you really would have actually succumbed to the influence of the group pressure. What might have happened would be for you to conform publicly but disagree privately. (This is something that happened quite a lot in Asch's experiment too.)
Some situations and groups somehow exert more pressure than others; and at some times more than at others. If you've experienced the pub situation, for example, you've probably found it easier to resist the pressure on some occasions and harder on others. The key then is to think about what ingredients make you want to conform, for instance, perhaps you are wanting/needing to be accepted, and approved of, by that group.
Out of fifty participants in Asch's original study, 75 per cent conformed to an obviously wrong answer given by the rest of the group at least once. However none of the participants conformed on every occasion the group gave wrong answers.
Asch went on to investigate how variations in the experimental situation would affect the frequency of conformity and resistance to conformity. He increased the difficulty of the task so that the lines were of similar lengths and found that conformity levels increased. Introducing an element of disagreement among the fixed group members encouraged the true participant not to conform. Also allowing the participant to write down their answer rather than say it out loud resulted in much lower levels of conformity. This supports the suggestion that in the original experiments many participants were publicly agreeing with the majority but privately disagreeing.
However Asch's results from the original experiment were still surprising as the correct answer was always very obvious. Some psychologists have suggested that the results Asch obtained were linked to the historical and cultural setting of the USA in the early 1950's as later studies or studies carried out in different countries have not always replicated Asch's findings. In the 1950s America was very conservative. Also the participants that Asch used in his study were college students and colleges then were much more hierarchical than they became later. This cultural background could have encouraged a high level of conformity.
Rod Bond and Peter Smith (1996) reviewed a number of studies carried out in different cultures using the Asch line judgement task. They found that levels of conformity were much higher in collectivist cultures, such as China, than in individualistic cultures, such as the USA. Collectivist cultures tend to emphasise the needs of the group over the needs of the individual whereas in individualistic cultures the needs of the individual take precedence. As collectivist cultures also stress the importance of adhering to group norms and supporting group decisions then it is not surprising that conformity levels will be higher.
Conformity is sometimes presented in a negative way especially when we see participants being manipulated in an experiment to give obviously incorrect answers as a result of group pressure. However it is worth considering that a certain level of conformity is necessary for any society to operate for the benefit of the vast majority of the members. It would be difficult for an audience in a theatre to enjoy a play if one person kept interrupting the actors and commented loudly on the story. Also it would feel very uncomfortable if the person in front of you on an escalator decided to turn round and stare at you as you travel to the next floor.
In this section you've explored some of the work carried out by social psychologists on group identities. You've seen how people can take up certain group identities which can give them a sense of belonging and self-esteem or result in negatively stereotyping, and possibly discriminating against, out-groups. While pressures to conform to groups can make individuals behave in ways that go against the grain, individuals can resist such pressures. The group can both influence the individual and act as a source of individual empowerment. The influence of groups tends to work most powerfully when supported by the wider culture.