Pressure to conform is especially strong in small groups in which members want to fit in with the group. In a series of experiments" conducted by Solomon Asch (1955, 1956), the pressure toward group conformity was so great that participants were willing to contradict their own best judgment if the rest of the group disagreed with them. One of AJd\'s experiments involved groups of undergraduate men (seven in each group) who were allegedly recruited for a study of visual perception. All the men were seated in chairs. However, the person in the sixth chair did not know that he was the only actual subject; all the others were assisting the researcher. The participants were first shown a large card with a verticalline on it and then a second card with three vertical lines (see ~ Figure 6.2). Each of the seven participants
was asked to indicate which of the three lines on the second card was identical in length to the "standard line" on the first card In the first test with each group, aU seven men selected the correct matching line. In the second trial, all seven stUl answered correctly, In the third trial, however, the actual subject became very uncomfortable when all the others selected the incorrect line. The subject could not understand what was happening and became even more confused as the others continued to give incorrect responses on eleven out of the next fifteen trials. If you had been in the position of the subject, how would you have responded? Would you have continued to give the correct answer, or would you have been swayed by the others? When Asch (1955) averaged the responses of all fifty actual subjects who participated in the study, he found that about 33 percent routinely chose to conform to the group by giving the same (incorrect) responses as Asch'sassistants. Another 40per- cent gave incorrect responses in about half of the trials.
Although 25 percent always gave correct responses, even they felt very uneasy and "knew that something was wrong" In discussing the experiment afterward, most of the subjects who gave incorrect responses indicated that they ha-' known the answers were wrong but decided to go with the group in order to avoid ridicule or ostracism. After conducting additional research, Asch coneluded that the size of the group and the degree of social cohesion felt by participants were important influences on the extent to which individuals respond to group pressure. In dyads, (or example, the subject was much less likely to conform to an incorrect response . from one assistant than in four-member groups. This effect peaked in groups of approximately seven members and then leveled off Not surprisingly, when groups were not cohesive (when more than one member dissented), group size had less effect If even a single assistant did not agree with the others, the subject was reassured by hearing someone else question the accuracy of incorrect responses and was much less likely to give a wrong answer himself. One contribution of Asch's research is the dramatic way in which it calls our attention to the power that groups have to produce a certain type of conformity. Compliance is the extent to which people say (or do) things so that they may gain the approval of other people. Certainly, Asch demonstrated that people will bow to social pressure in small-group settings. From a sociological perspective, however, the study was flawed because it involved deception about the purpose of the study and about the role of individual group members. Moreover. the study induded only male college students, thus making it impossible for us to generalize its findings to other populations, including w.omen and people who were not undergraduates, Would Asch's conclusions have been the same if women had participated in the study? Would the same conclusions be reached if the study were conducted today? We cannot answer these questions with certainty, but the work of Solomon Asch and his student, Stanley Milgram, has had a lasting impact on social science perceptions about group conformity and obedience to authority.