26 February 2011
Asch’s Study of Conformity
In 1955, Solomon Eliot Asch carried out an investigation into human conformity as a social psychology study. Asch was interested in discovering under which circumstances people would be most inclined to conform. This study was pivotal in our developing understanding of social psychology as the better our knowledge of this, the less chance we have of being manipulated by others for their own ends.
The study itself focused on a group of several, male college students; they were told they would be examining line lengths in a study of ‘visual judgement.’ The men were shown one white card with one dark line on (the standard) and another white card with three dark lines of varying lengths. The subjects were asked to pick the line which is the same length as the standard line: one line was the exact same length as the standard line while the other two were distinctly different. The subjects gave their answer in front of the other men and in the order in which they were sat. Unknowingly, only one man was a real subject and the other men were in cahoots with Asch and it had been pre-arranged that all but one of these men would give their answer before the real subject. These men would give different responses for the various experiments carried out: the majority of the men gave incorrect answers in 12 of the 18 trials for each series of the experiment.
The results showed that the majority of participants gave an answer to fit in with the majority response. 25%, however, went against the majority and when interviewed afterwards, it was ascertained that these people had an audacious confidence in their own ability and also the capability to recover from doubt. Later replication of Asch’s study, carried out in 1980 by Perrin & Spencer, concluded that the level of conformity did not continue through and suggested that Asch’s study was a “child of its time” and discussed the pressure of social conformity in the 1950s as a reason for this. However, following further repeats of this experiment in 1981, Doms & Avermaet found conformity to have occurred; this prompted Perrin & Spencer to repeat their study; this time with probation officers as the confederate and young men on probation as the subjects. In this study, conformity was indeed found.
A criticism of these studies is that they were only carried out on men. An interesting twist may have been to carry out the study with men and women to see the influence that men had over the women, particularly in the 1950s when society was patriarchal still. In the original Asch study, all participants were students and presumably, young; it is well-known that young adults are more interested in ‘fitting in’ socially than their older counterparts and as such, Asch was more likely to get the desired result, making his experiment slightly unreliable.
Milgram’s Study of Obedience
Stanley Milgram designed his experiment in an attempt to gain some insight into why the horrors of the holocaust from World War Two took place. Six million Jews, Slavs, gypsies and homosexuals were murdered during this time and in the post-war trials, many Nazi officers simply stated that they were following orders and this idea of obedience fascinated Milgram: he designed an experiment that could measure obedience and endeavour to find out why Germans seemed to be particularly obedient, even in the face of such horrific orders.
His study consisted of asking one person to give another person (in another room) an electric shock. These ‘shocks’ were given in clearly-marked 15 volt increments ranging from 15 to 450 volt; the idea was to see how far the subject would go: how many volts would they administer before their conscience stopped them? The subjects were found through a newspaper advert and were varying in age from 20-50, jobs and backgrounds. The ‘experimenter’ and the ‘victim’ were played by actors: the experimenter was a Biology school teacher and the victim was a middle-aged, likeable accountant.
Out of 40 subjects, 100% administered the first two voltage amounts, the number of obedient subjects drops off until 26 out of the 40 administered the maximum amount. Qualitatively, Milgram and other observers reported that many of the subjects appeared to be tense and very nervous, and three of them had full-blown laughing fits, presumably out of nerves. Those that carried on to the end were eventually stopped by the experimenter and seemed to show signs of relief and/or regret. Milgram and his assistants stated that they were “totally unexpected” by the level of obedience. Even the high level of tension caused by the experiment didn’t stop participants from carrying on and they drew the following conclusions as to why the participants were so obedient: the belief that the ‘victim’ has volunteered, the fact that they had made a commitment (strengthened by the fact they’re getting paid), they were told that the shocks were not harmful, amongst other factors too.
The biggest issue with this study is, obviously, ethics: how would this affect the participants after the study had concluded? Milgram received a large amount of criticism for the study and reproductions of the study have not been carried out as a result. However, follow-up studies were completed by various psychologists including Hoffing et al. in 1966: they asked nurses whether they would give patients lethal injections and the majority of them were happy to do so. This sort of study will always meet with some conflict simply because, as human beings, we don’t want to think of ourselves as being capable of doing such horrible things but Milgram’s study suggests that we are and that the implications of that are massive.
Asch, Solomon. “Opinions and social pressure.” Introducing Psychological Research. Ed. Philip Banyard. New York: Palgrave, 2000. pp. 5 – 9. Print.
Milgram, Stanley. “Behavioural study of obedience.” Introducing Psychological Research. Ed. Philip Banyard. New York: Palgrave, 2000. pp. 15 – 20. Print.
Crisp, Richard, and Turner, Rhiannon. Essential Social Psychology. London: Sage Publications, 2007. Electronic.