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Normative Social Influence

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Normative Social Influence

‘Asch’s paradigm’ refers to the multiple conformity studies Solomon Asch conducted in the 1950s.

A paradigm is a fundamental belief, assumption, or truth that most people consider valid. The theory of evolution is an example of a paradigm in biology.

This article will look closely into the Asch study and normative social influence and examine its results and criticisms.

But first, let us cover the basics; what is the definition of normative social influence?

Normative conformity or normative social influence is when people change their behaviour or beliefs to fit into a group.

Asch’s conformity experiment (1951)

Asch created his study in response to Sherif’s (1935) autokinetic conformity experiment, in which Sherif asked participants how much a stationary projected light on a screen appeared to move. Asch believed that conformity was theoretically impossible because there was no correct answer to the task in Sherif’s experiment, making it more difficult to be sure whether participants had conformed. With his study, Asch wanted to find out how strong the effects of conformity were even when there was an obvious answer to the task.

Asch conformity experiment summary

What were the experimental conditions of Asch’s visual judgment experiment?

Asch conducted a laboratory experiment with Swarthmore College participants. Participants volunteered and believed that the experiment would be a vision test. Each participant was placed in a group of eight. The other seven participants were confederates (participants who were secretly part of the research team) who were instructed to give incorrect answers in the experiment.

Normative Social Influence Asch study line diagram of materials used StudySmarterDiagram of materials used in the Asch study, Wikimedia Commons

All participants, including confederates, were given sheets of paper with four lines printed on them. One line was the ‘target line’, and the others were marked A, B, and C. Participants had to name the line that corresponded to the target line. The independent variable was the response of the confederates, and the dependent variable was the actual participant response. Participants were intentionally seated near the end of the seating arrangement so that they could hear the answers from the confederates first. This was to determine if they would match the confederate responses.

Asch also used a control group to ensure the validity of his findings. In this group, there were no confederates, and only 1% of the participants gave an incorrect answer.

Asch experiment results

Asch found that although the answer to the task was clear, participants were influenced to conform by the confederate responses. Only 26% of participants did not conform, while 74% conformed at least once. Overall, participants matched on 32% of the trials.

The Asch effect is the term used to describe situations in which someone changes their correct answer to an incorrect one in response to the incorrect answers of the majority. This is referred to as compliance.

Asch’s experiment is an example of normative social influence because it shows that people are willing to fit into a group even if this is not right or conflicts with their private thoughts and feelings.Asch’s paradigm was highly influential in developing what we know today as social psychology. His research on conformity formed the basis for much other work, such as Milgram’s shock experiment (1963).

What was found in subsequent conformity studies?

Asch performed variations of his original experiment with some differences. These differences included variations in group size ranging from one to 15 confederates, reductions in unanimity where a confederate participant was instructed to agree with the true participant, and changes in task difficulty where the agreeing line would be either more or less obvious.

Group size

Participants were found to be less likely to conform when fewer confederates were present and more likely when more confederates were present. Asch found that conformity peaked at three confederates (32%). After this point, increasing group size had a negligible effect. This finding proves that normative social influence is stronger in larger groups.

Reducing unanimity

When one confederate was instructed to agree with the participant, the conformity rate dropped significantly to 5%. This could be because the participant felt he had social support in the group, so the effects of normative social influence were not as strong.

However, in another iteration, a fellow participant was instructed to give an answer that was different from both the participant and the rest of the confederates. Conformity still dropped to 9%, indicating that the participant was more likely to question the legitimacy of the answer when the group was no longer unanimous.

Difficulty of task

Finally, conformity increased when the task was made more difficult, making the answer less obvious to participants. This could be an example of informational social influence, which occurs when someone is unsure of their own knowledge and looks to the information of others for help.

Criticism of Asch’s studies

Like all theories in science, there are criticisms that should be considered. With such an impactful study, what were the possible criticisms?

Lack of temporal validity

Asch’s study reflected the social norms of the time and may not be applicable to today’s world. In the 1950s, society was much more conformist and consisted of rigid social roles to which people adhered. The McCarthy attitude of the time (the cultural fear of communism) was also very discouraging and classified many forms of non-conformist behaviour as ‘communist’.Perrin & Spencer (1980) criticised Asch’s conformity experiment as being a ‘child of its time and without temporal validity’. They proved this by repeating the experiment with British mathematics, chemistry, and engineering students and found that only 1 of 396 participants conformed.

Demand characteristics

The task set was artificial and not something one would encounter in daily life. This is a phenomenon where a participant figures out the researcher’s intent and therefore behaves as they think the researcher expects them to.

Bias

The study is androcentric in that the participants were all male. This also demonstrates beta bias (theories that ignore differences between males and females), as Asch concluded that the results of his study applied to both genders. Therefore, the results may not generalise to women. The participants were all Americans, so the results cannot be generalised to other countries/cultures.

Ethical Considerations

There are some ethical issues with Asch’s study. His participants could not give informed consent because they believed they were participating in an eye test. Many of them reported stress and anxiety because they were singled out during the experiment.

However, Asch did debrief his participants, which would have provided them with emotional support after the experiment.

Further variables not considered

Asch’s study did not consider other factors that may have influenced participants’ likelihood of compliance. Williams and Sogon (1984) found that participants were more likely to conform in situations where the majority group consisted of friends.

Normative Social Influence - Key takeaways

Frequently Asked Questions about Normative Social Influence

The Asch conformity experiment (1951) is a study that aimed to show the effects of conformity in a group setting.

Normative conformity or normative social influence is when people change their behaviour or beliefs to fit into a group.

Yes. People were willing to give the wrong answer in the experiment because they felt the need to conform to the confederates.

An example of normative conformity or normative social influence is when you pretend to like a TV show just because your friends often talk about it.

Normative social influence is when people would rather conform to a group than be correct about something they know to be true. Informational social influence occurs when someone is unsure of their own knowledge and looks to the information of others for help.

Final Normative Social Influence Quiz

Question

What is Asch’s paradigm?

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Answer

Asch’s paradigm is a series of studies by Solomon Asch on the subject of conformity.

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What is a confederate?

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Answer

A confederate is a participant who is secretly part of the research team.

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What were the aims of Asch’s study?

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Answer

Asch wanted to investigate how strong the effects of normative social influence were in a group setting.

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Which type of conformity did Asch’s participants exhibit when they changed their correct answers? 

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Answer

The participants were exhibiting compliance.

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What is the ‘Asch effect?’ 


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Answer

The Asch effect is when somebody changes their correct answer to an incorrect one to fit in with the majority group.

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In the original study, how many participants conformed at least once?

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74% of the participants conformed at least once.

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What are demand characteristics and why can they be harmful?

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Answer

Demand characteristics occur when a participant identifies the purpose of the research taking place and changes their actions to help or hinder the researcher. This results in inaccurate data.

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How did Asch attempt to mitigate demand characteristics?

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Asch attempted to mitigate demand characteristics by deceiving his participants into thinking they were taking part in a ‘visual test’ rather than the experiment.

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Which form of social influence was Asch’s study investigating?

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Answer

Asch’s study was investigating normative social influence.

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How might the demographics of Asch’s participants limit the experiment’s validity?

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Answer

Asch’s participants were all similarly aged white American males. Thus, we may not be able to apply the experiment’s results to people of different genders, ages, backgrounds, or cultures.

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Were Asch’s participants briefed before the experiment?

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Only the confederates were briefed. The participants thought they were attending a ‘vision test’.

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What did Williams and Sogon find in their investigation and why was this a weakness of Asch’s study?

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Answer

Williams and Sogon found that conformity was higher in groups of friends than groups of strangers. This finding suggests there may be a number of factors affecting conformity that Asch did not identify or investigate.

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