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sc*EllyTIF1c OFFPRINTS AMERICAN
Opinions and Social Pressure by Solomon E. Asch
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN NOVEMBER 1955
VOL. 193, NO. 5 PP. 31-35
on the next p a g e ) . Six of the subjects have been coached bedre- EXPERIMENTTS REPEATED in the Laboratory of Social Rela. hand to give unanimously wrong answers. seventh from tions at (s ixth Harvard University. Seven student subjects are asked by the The
experimenter (r ight) to compare the length of lines (see diagram the left) has merely been told that it is an experiment in perception
nosis was but an extreme form of a normal psychological process which be- came known as “suggestibility.” It was shown that monotonous reiteration of in- structions could induce in normal per- sons in the waking state involuntary bodily changes such as swaying or rigid- ity of the arms, and sensations such as warmth and odor.
I t was not long before social thinkers seized upon these discoveries as a basis for explaining numerous social phe- nomena, from the spread of opinion to
the formation of crowds and the follow- ing of leaders. The sociologist Gabriel Tarde summed it all up in the aphorism: “Social man is a somnambulist.”
When the new discipline of social psy-
chology was born at the beginning of
this century, its first experiments were
has also brought into existence the de- liberate manipulation of opinion and the “engineering of consent.” There are many good reasons why, as citizens and as scientists, we should be concerned with studying the ways in which human
beings form their opinions and the role that social conditions play.
Studies of these questions began with the interest in hypnosis aroused by the
French physician Jean Martin Charcot ( a teacher of Siqmund Freud I toward the end of the 19th centup . Charcot believed that only hysterical patients could be fully hypnotized, but this view was soon challenged by two other physi-
cians, Hyppolyte Bernheim and A . A .
Liebault, who demonstrated that they
could put most people under the hyp- notic spell. Bernheim proposed that hyp-
T, hat social influences shape every person’s practices, judgments and
eliefs is a truism to which anyone will readily assent. A child masters his “native” dialect down to the finest
nuances; a member of a tribe of canni- bals accepts cannibalism as altogether fitting and proper. All the social sciences
take their departure from the observa- tion of the profound effects that groups exert on their members. For psycholo-
gists, group pressure upon the minds of individuals raises a host of questions they would like to investigate in detail.
How, and to what extent, do social forces constrain people’s opinions and
attitudes? This question is especially pertinent in our day. The same epoch that has witnessed the unprecedented
technical extension of communication
Exact ly d what is the e f ec t of the opinions of others on our own?
In other words, how strong is the urge toward social conformity?
The question is approached by means o f some unusual experiments
by Solomon E. Asch
Opinions and Social Pressure
tions about it. one of which was the same length as the standard. The subjects were asked to choose thisline.
essentially adaptations of the suggestion
demonstration. The technique generally
followed a simple plan. The subjects, usually college students, were asked to give their opinions or preferences con-
cerning various matters; some time later they were again asked to state their
choices, but now they were also in-
formed of the opinions held by authori- ties or large groups of their peers on the same matters. (Often the alleged con-
sensus was fictitious.) Most of these studies had substantially the same result:
confronted with opinions contrary to
their own, many subjects apparently
shifted their judgments in the direction of the views of the majorities or the ex-
perts. The late psychologist Edward L. Thorndike reported that he had suc-
ceeded in modifying the esthetic prefer- ences of adu!ts by this procedure. Other
psychologists reported that people’s
evaluations of the merit of a literary passage could be raised or lowered by
ascribing the passage to different au- thors. -4pparently the sheer weight of
numbers or authority sufficed to change opinions, even when no arguments for
the opinions themselves were provided.
Now the very ease of success in these experiments arouses suspicion. Did the
subjects actually change their opinions, or were the experimental victories scored
onlv on paper? On grounds of common
sense, one must question whether opinions are generally as watery as these
studies indicate. There is some reason to wonder whether it was not the investiga- tors who, in their enthusiasm for a
theory, were suggestibie. and whether the ostensibly gullible subjects were nok providing answers which they thought
good subjects were expected to give. The investigations were guided by cer-
tain underlying assumptions, which to- day are common currency and account
for much that is thought and said about the operations of propaganda and public
opinion. The assumptions are that peo-
ple submit uncritically and painlessly to
external manipulation by suggestion or prestige, and that any given idea or value can be “sold” or “unsold” without refer- ence to its merits. W e should be skepti-
cal, however, of the supposition that the power of social pressure ne ssarily im-
plies uncritical submission f . o it: inde- pendence and the capacity to rise above group passim are also open to human beings. Further, one may question on psychological grounds whether it is pos- sible as a ruls to change a person’s judg- ment of a situation or an object without first changing his knowledge or assump-
I n what follows I shall describe some
experiments in an investigation of the
effects of group pressure which was car- ried out recently with the help of a num-
ber of my associates. The tests not only demonstrate the operations of group
pressure upon individuals but also illus- trate a new kind of attack on the prob-
lem and some of the more subtle ques- tions that it raises.
A group of seven to nine young men,
all college students, are assembled in a classroom for a “psychological experi-
ment” in visual judgment. The experi-
menter informs them that they will be comparing the lengths of lines. He shows two large white cards. On one is a single
vertical black line-the standard whose
length is to be matched. On the other card are three vertical lines of various lengths. The subjects are to choose the
one that is of the same length as the line on the other card. One of the three actually is of the same length; the other two are substantially different, the differ-
ence ranging from three quarters of an
inch to an inch and three quarters. The experiment opens uneventfully.
The subjects announce their answers in the order in which they have been seated
in the room, and on the first round every person chooses the same matching line.
Then a second set of cards is exposed; again the group is unanimous. The mem- bers appear read:; to endure politely an-
other boring experiment. On the third trial there is an unexpected disturbance.
One person near the end of the grouF disagrees with all the others in his selec- tion of the matching line. He looks sur-
prised. indeed incredulous, about the disagreement. On the following trial he
disagrees again, while the others remain unanimous in their choice. The dissenter
becomes more and more worried and hesitant as the disagreement continues in succeeding trials; he moy pause before announcing his answer and speak in a
low voice, or he may smile in an em-
What the dissenter does not know is
that all the other members of the group were instructed by the experimenter beforehand to give incorrect answers in
unanimity at certain points. The single individual who is not a party to this pre-
arrangement is the focal subject of our experiment. He is placed in a position in which, while he is actually giving the correct answers, he finds himself unex- pectedly in a minority of one, opposed
by a unanimous and arbitrary majority with respect to a clear and simple fact.
Upon him we have brought to bear two
opposed forces: the evidence of his senses and the unanimous opinion of a
group of his peers. Also, he must declare his judgments in public, before a major- ity which has also stated its position
publicly. The instructed majority occasionally
reports correctly in order to reduce the possibility that the naive subject will sus- pect collusion against him. ( In only a
few cases did the subject actually show suspicion: when this happened, the ex-
periment vas stopped and the results
were not counted.) There are 18 trials in each series. and on 12 of these the
majority responds erroneously. How do people respond to group pres-
sure in this situation? I shall report first the statistical results of a series in which ii total of 123 subjects from three institu-
tjons of higher learnins (not including my w~m. Swarthmore College! were
placed in the minority situation de- scribed :hove.
Two alternatives nere open to the
subject: he could x t independently, re-
pudiating the majority, or he could go along with the majority, repudiating the
evidence of his senses. Of the 123 put to the test, a considerable percentage yielded to the majority. Whereas in ordi- nary circumstances individuals matching
the lines will make mistakes less than 1
per cent of the time. under group pres-
S ne bore a standard line. The other bore three lines, UBJECTS WERE SHOWN two rards. O
EXPERIMENTPROCEEDS as follows. In the top picture the subject (center) hears rules
of experiment for the first time. In the second picture he makes his first judgment of a pair of
cards, didagreeing with the unanimous judgment of the others. I n the third he leans forward
to !ook at another pair of cards. In the fourth he shows the strain of repeatedly disagreeing
with the majority. In the fifth, after 12 pairs of cards have been shown, he explains that “he
has to call them as he sees them.” This subject disagreed with the majority on all 12 trials.
Seventyfive per cent of experimental subjects agree with the majority in varying degrees.
sure the minority subjects swung to ac- ceptance of the misleading majority’s wrong judgments in 36.8 per cent of the selections.
Of course individuals differed in re- sponse. At one extreme, about one quar- ter of the subjects were completely in- dependent and never agreed with the erroneous judgments of the majority. At
the other extreme, some individuals went with the majority nearly all the time. The performances of individuals in this ex- periment tend to be highly consistent. Those who strike out on the path of in- dependence do not, as a rule, succumb to the majority even over an extended series of trials, while those who choose the path of compliance are unable to free themselves as the ordeal is prolonged.
The reasons for the startlirig individu- al differences have not yet been investi- gated in detail. At this point we can
only report some tentative generaliza-
tions from talks with the subjects, each of whom was inter-Jiewed at the end of the experiment. Aniong the independent individuals were many who held fast be-
cause of staunch confidence in their own judgment. The most significant fact
about them was not absence of re- sponsiveness to the majority but a ca- pacity to recover from doubt and to re- establish their equilibrium. Others who acted independently came to believe that the majority was correct in its an-
swers, but they continued their dissent on the Fimple ground that it was their obligation to call the play as they saw it.
Among the extremely yielding persons we found a group who quickly reached the conclusion: “I am wrong, they are right.” Others yie!ded in order “not to spoil your results.” Xany of the in-
dividuals who went along suspected that the majority were “sheep” following the first responder, or that the majority were victims of an optical illusion; neverthe- less, these suspicions failed to free them
a t the moment of decision. %ore dis- quieting were the reactions of subjects who construed their difference from the majority as a sigv of some general deficiency in themselves, which at all costs they must hide. On this basis they desperately tried to merge with the ma- jority, not realizing the longer-range consequences to themselves. A11 the yielding subjects underestimated the frequency with which they conformed.
hich aspect of the influence of a
w m a j o r i t y is more importantAhe
size of the majority or its unanimity? The experiment was modified to examine this
most of the errors the subjects do make as the subject had anyone on his side, he to
question. In one series the size of the op- position was varied from one to 13 per-
sons. The results showed a clear trend.
IVhen a subject was confronted with only a single individual who contra-
dicted his answers, he vas swayed little: he continued to answer independently
und correctly in nearly all trials. When
the opposition was increased to two, the pressure became substantial: minority
subjects nov accepted the wrong an- swer 13.6 per cent of the time. Under
the pressure of a majority of three, the
subjects’ errors jumped to 31.8 per cent.
But further increases in the size of the majority apparently did not increase the
weight of the pressure substantially.
Clearly the size of the opposition is im-
Disturbance of the majority’s unanim-
ity had $1 striking effect. In this experi-
ment the subject was given the support of a truthful partner-either another in-
dividual who did not !-moly of the pre- arranged asreement among the rest of
the group, or a person who was instruct-
ed to give correct answers throughout.
The presence of a supporting partner depleted the majority of much of its
power. Its pressure on the dissenting in- dividual vas reduced to one fourth: that
is. subjects ansvered incorrectly only
one fourth ;:s often as under the pressure of a unanimous majority [see chart at
h e r kft on fucitrg p u g e ] . The
weakest persons did not yield as readily.
lost interesting were the reactions to the partner. Generally the feeling
toward him was one of u.armth and closeness; he was credited vi th inspiring
confidence. However. the subjects re-
pudiated the suggestion that the partner
decided them to be independent. [Vas the putner’s effect a conse-
quence of his dissent, or was it related
to his accuracy? We now introduced into the experimental group a person who
was instructed to dissent from the major-
ity but also to disagree with the subject. In some experiments the inajority was always to choose the worst of the com-
parison lines and the instructed dissenter to pick the line that was closer to the length of the standard one; in others the majority was consistently intermediate
and the dissenter most in erwr. In this manner we were able to s t d y the rela- tive influence of “compromising” and “extremist” clpsenters.
Again the results are clear. When a moderate dissenter is present, the effect of the majority on the subject decreases by approximately one third, and ex- tremes of yielding disappear. Moreover,
portant only up to a point. . .
are moderate, rather than flagrant. In
short, the dissenter largely controls the choice of errors. To this extent the sub-
jects broke away from the majority even while bending to it.
On the other hand, when the dissenter always chose the line that was more fla- grantly different from the standard, the
results were of quite ;I different kind. The extremist dissenter produced a re-
markable freeing of the subjects; their errors dropped to only 9 per cent.
Furthermore, all the errors were of the
inoderate variety. We were able to con- clude that dissent pet sc incresed in-
dependence and moderated the errors that occurred, and that the direction of dissent exerted consistent effects.
all the foregoing experiments each . Insubject was observed only in a single setting. We now turned to studying the
effects upon a given individual of a
change in the situation to which he was cxposed. The first experiment examined
the consequences of losing or gaining a
pnrtner. The instructed partner began by
answering correctly on the first six trials. Vith his support the subject usually re-
sisted pressure from the majorit!-: 18 o! 27 subjects were completely independ-
ent. But after six trials the partner joined the majority. A s soon as he did so, there was an abrupt rise in the subjects’ errors.
Their submission to the majority was just about ;is frequent ‘1s Ivhen the minorit!.
subject w a s opposed b?. a unanimous miijoritv throughout.
It w a s surprising to find that the es- perience of hating had n partner and of
having bra:ed the majority opposition
\-ith him h,id failed to strengthen the in-
dividuals’ independence. Questioning at the conclusion of the experiment sug- gested that we had overlooked an im-
portant circumstance; namely, the stron? specific effect of “desertion” by the part-
ner to the other side. Ve therefore
changed the conditions so that the part- ner would simply leave the group at the proper point. (To allay suspicion it was
announced in advance that he had an appointment with the dean.) In this form of the experiment, the partner’s ef- fect outlasted his presence. The errors increased after his departure, but less markedly than after a partnbr switched
to the majority. In a variant of this procedure the trials
began with the majority unanimously giving correct answers. Then they grad- ually broke away until on the sixth trial
the naive subject was alone and the
group unanimously against him. As long
was almost invariably independent, but
as soon as he found himself alone, the tendency to conform to the majority rose
abruptly. .As might be expected, an individual’s
resistance to group pressure in these ex-
periments depends to a considerable de-. gree on how wrong the majority is. W e
varied the discrepancy between the st:indard line and the other lines system- atically, with the hope of reaching a
point where the error of the majority
vould be so glaring that every subject
u.ouId repudiate it and choose inde- pendently. In this we regretfully did not
succeed. Even when the difference be- tween the lines was seven inches, there
were still some who yielded to the error of the majority.
The study provides clear answers to a
few relatively simple questions, and it
raises many others that ̂ await investiga- tion. We would like to know the degree of consistency of persons in situations
nshich differ in content and structure. If consistency of independence or conform- ity in behavior is shown to be a fact, how
is it functionally related to qualities of
character and personality? In what ways is independence related to sociological
or cultural conditions? Are leaders more independent than other people, or are they adept at following their followers?
These and many other questions may perhaps be answerable by investiga-
tions of the type described here.
ite in society requires consensus as an indispensable condition. But consen-
sus. to be productive, requires that each
individual contribute independently out of his experience and insight. IVhen con- sensus comes under the dominance of conformity, the social process is polluted
. ~ n d the individual at the same time sur- xnders the powers on which his func- tioning as a feeling and thinking being
depends. That we have found the ten- dency to conformity in our society so strong that reasonably intelligent and
u.ell-meaning young people are willirig to call white black is a matter of concern. It rxises cluestions about our ways of edu- cation and about the values that guide
our conduct. Yet anyone inclined to draw too pessi-
mistic conclusions from this report would do well to remind himself that the ca- pacities for independence are not to be underestimated. He may also draw some consolation from a further observation: those who participated in this challeng-
exception that independence was prefer- able conformity.
ing experiment agreed nearly without t
I 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 1 0 1 1 1 2
ERROR of 123 subjects, each of whom compared
lines in the presence of six to eight opponents, is
plotted in the colored curve. The accuracy of judg-
ments not under pressure is indicated in black.
I 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 1 0 1 l 1 2 1 3 1 4 1 5
NUMBER OF OPPONENTS
SIZE OF MAJORITY which opposed them had an effect on the subjects.With
a single opponent the subject erred only 3.6 per cent of the time; with two opponents he erred 13.6 per cent; three, 31.8 per cent; four, 35.1 per cent;
six, 35.2 per cent; seven, 37.1 per cent; nine, 35.1 per cent: 15, 31.2 per cent.
P 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 l O l 1 1 2
TB-0 SCBJECTS supporting each other against a majority made fewer errors (colored curve) than
one subject did against a majority (Hock curve).
I 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 l o l l 12 13 I L i 5 1617 18
* PARTNER LEFT SUBJECT after six trials in a single experimetft. The
colored curve shows the error of the subject when the partner "deserted" to
the majority. Black curve shows error when partner merely left the room.
SOLO.LION E. ASCH is professor of
psychology at Swarthmore College. H e
was born in Vnrsaw in 1907, came to the
U.S. in his youth and graduated from the
College of the City of S e w York in 1928.
=fter taking his l l .LL uncl P1i.D. from
Columbia University. he taug!it at Brook-
lyn College and the S e v School for So- cial Research before joiniiig the Svnrth-
more faculty ill 19-17.
Bibliography EFFECTS or GHOUP PRESSURE UPOX THE
~ ~ O D I F I C A T I O S ASD DISTORTION OF
JUDGMENTS. S. E. Ascli in Groups,
Leudersliip und Men, edited by Har-
old Guetzkow. Curnegie Press, 19.51.
SOCIAL LEARSISG AND IMITATIOS. N. E. Sliller and J. Dollard. Yale University
SOCI;L PSYCHOLOGY. Solomon E. Asch.
Preiitice-Hd1, Inc., 1952.
Study Guide Prepared by JOHN P. J. PINEL, UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBtA
OPINIONS AND SOCIAL PRESSURE
Solomon E. Asch NOVEMBER 1955
How, and how much, do social forces constrain people’s opinions? The study of this question began with interest in the phenomenon of hypnosis. I t was shown tha t monotonous reiteration of instructions could induce in normal, awake persons involuntary responses, such as swaying or rigidity of the arms, and sensations, such as warmth and odor. When the discipline of social psychology was born a t the beginning of this century, many of its first experiments were demonstra- tions of how suggestion could affect opinion. The usual for- mat was fist to ask the subjects their opinions concerning various matters. Some time later they were asked to state their opinions again, but this time they were first told of opinions held by authorities or large groups of their peers. Confronted with opinions contrary to theirs, many subjects shifted their judgments in the direction of the opposing views. Evidently the sheer weight of numbers or authority was sufficient t o change opinions, even when no arguments for the opinions themselves were provided. The author describes a series of experiments which have not only confirmed the finding tha t group pressure can shape opinion, but also raised some interesting new questions.
The same general format was always followed. A group of seven to nine subjects was assembled in a classroom-sup- posedly to take part in a n experiment on visual judgment. These subjects were first shown a white card with a single black line. From a second card with three lines the subjects were asked to choose the line which was the same length as t he line on the first card. The subjects announced their answers one at a time, in the order in which they were seated. However, only the last individual in the sequence was a sub- ject; the others were in league with the experimenter and responded according to a prearranged plan. What did the subject do on trials when all the other members of the group
selected a line tha t was not correct? Two alternatives were
open to the subject: he could act independently, repudiating the majority; or he could go along with the majority, repudiating the evidence of his senses. Under ordinary cir- cumstances individuals made mistakes less than 1 per cent of
the time, but under group p
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