The Asch Conformity Experiment

Solomon Asch. “Opinions and social pressure.” Scientific American, vol.193, no.5 (1955), p.31-35.

Back in April, I wrote about the classic Milgram experiment and what it shows about how disturbingly willing people are to submit to authority, even in the presence of strong countervailing reasons. What about when the pressure to obey comes not from an authority figure above us, but from our peers? How will people fare then?

A classic study was done on this question in 1955 by Solomon Asch. In Asch’s experiment, eight participants were shown into a room and sat down in a row, in full view of each other. In actuality, there was only one real subject; unbeknownst to that person, the other seven people were confederates of the experimenter.

The experimenter, standing at the front of the room, put up a card with a single reference line on it, and then another card with several lines of varying lengths. The experimenter then asked the participants to state out loud which of the lines on the second card was the same length as the reference line. The lines on the cards were all of dramatically varying lengths, so it was obvious at a glance which two lines matched. But the seven confederates, all of whom answered before the subject, all gave the same wrong answer.

What would you do in a circumstance like this? It seems obvious what the correct answer is. Yet everyone around you disagrees, which raises the unsettling possibility that the fault is yours. Would you stick to your guns, insisting on following the evidence despite strong social pressure to conform? Or would you give in and assume that maybe everyone else knows something you don’t?

In control experiments where the element of social pressure was not present, participants selected the wrong line less than 1% of the time. But when group pressure was applied, the results changed dramatically. For all trials combined, participants gave the wrong answer when pressured to do so approximately 37% of the time, and as many as 75% of people went along with the majority at least once.

These are disturbingly high numbers. But Asch’s experiment, if anything, underestimates the pressure to conform in the real world. This experiment was carried out in the highly artificial environment of the laboratory – where the right answer was unambiguous and extremely obvious, potentially giving independent thinkers a stronger motivation to resist peer pressure. In real-life situations where the answers are not so simple, it may be more difficult not to go along with the crowd. Perhaps even more important, the confederates in the laboratory experiment were strangers, bearing no special relation to the participant. What if, instead, they were members of the participant’s in-group – relatives, friends, citizens of the same country, members of the same race, of the same religion? Under such circumstances, it may be far more difficult not to give one’s allegiance to the group. In such cases, it’s not hard at all to understand how many people could be coerced into stifling their doubts and joining the majority for fear of being the odd one out.

The Asch experiment has been repeated in modern times as well (source), this time with advanced brain-scanning imagery that allows researchers to watch which parts of the brain light up with activity in people in these situations. The results: when faced with a conflict with the group, the most-active areas of the brain are those having to do with spatial perception, not conscious judgment. The researchers suggested that the pressure of group conformity may literally change what a person sees – although, to be fair, an equally plausible explanation is that a participant’s mentally “rechecking their answers” to see if they made a mistake causes increased activity in the spatial regions of the brain.

However, these findings were not all bad news. In Asch’s original experiment, about one-quarter of participants refused to be swayed, always rejecting the wrong answer no matter how many other confederates supported it. These nonconformists may well be the ones who seed movements of social change in the real world, rejecting widely believed prejudices and inspiring something new and better. (It would be interesting to redo this study and find out whether people in this group correlate with atheism and freethought.)

But the Asch conformity experiment gives another, more substantial reason for hope. In a slight variation of the experiment, where just one confederate gave the right answer, the rate of compliance with the majority plunged dramatically. Evidently, seeing even one other person stand by you is enough to give most people the courage to resist social pressure.

This is why it is so important for atheists to speak out. We may be accused of “preaching to the choir”, but in our case, we have a choir that needs to be preached to. The societal prejudices against atheism still run so strong that many nonbelievers are coerced into remaining anonymous, staying silent about their views or even pretending to be theists so as not to be discriminated against. In an atmosphere of intense hostility and bias, this is not hard to understand at all. But by making ourselves visible, by speaking out for atheism in a strong voice, we may well give many of these closeted nonbelievers the motivation they need to speak out and make their own voices heard in turn.

SF/F Saturday: Terry Pratchett’s Death
The Atheist Community Is Diversifying
TV Review: Cosmos, Episode 13
Repost: The Age of Wonder
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Alison

    I never heard of that experiment. Fascinating. I know it’s hard for people to speak out against a group, but I didn’t think that predisposition to silence would have an effect in such an unimportant situation. Wow. Time for me to write that letter to the editor of the local paper, which keeps printing the letters of people who want to put god back in the schools. . .

  • King Aardvark

    I’d heard about this experiment. In my highschool sociology class the teacher did this test to a friend of mine, having the rest of the class give the wrong answer. Of course he went along with the majority as apparently 75% would.

    Of course the important part of the piece is the thing about the one other dissenting voice that helps other not follow along with the majority. Do you have a number for how much compliance with the majority diminished in this case?

  • Andreas

    From now on, every time I hear someone saying that Dawkins, Harris etc. are just preaching to the choir, I’ll refer him or her to this post! Excellent!

  • uhclem

    I can vouch for the validity of this experiment, having undergone something very similar as a young child, probably 7 years old. I seem to recall being sent off for a few days to a local college for speech therapy. I was unwittingly brought into a psychology experiment being conducted by some not-too-scrupulous investigators. Essentially I was brought into a room, surrounded by adults only and asked to critique the speech patterns of a guy with a ridiculously exaggerated stammer. Of course with all these people, all of them acting like there was nothing wrong, I stated that there was nothing wrong with this guy. Somehow the desire to be accepted in society seems to overrule the plain facts in many cases. I imagine there are a lot more closet atheists attending church than anyone imagines. This has always bugged me, leaving me with this vague sense of shame for not having stood up for myself, even though I was only 7. Funny I’ve never told anyone about this in 40 years…. GD

  • valhar2000

    Given this, and the stories you sometimes read of people who lost faith but took years to realise that they were atheists (or rather, to learn what the word actually means), I would also not be surprised to find more than a few atheists in churches.

  • Neil Marr

    It’s quite telling that, in the children’s story, the hero is the wee boy who innocently goes against the 100% consensus and declares that the emperor is wearing no clothes (well, 100% apart from the cunning tailor who had a vested interest in promoting the fraud [excuse pun]). Sheepishly going along with the flock — even against the evidence and against common sense — probably goes back to the dawn of social man. Sadly, it’s all too apparently still a human trait. Neil

  • KShep

    Oh, there are atheists in churches. I work with a devout “christian” who protests abortion and speaks in tongues. Yes, he speaks in tongues. But he also gets tired of the church from time to time, saying he can’t stand the whole thing, and quits going for a few weeks, only to feel guilty and return. When he goes through his “tired” phase, he says all the same things we say here—-he sees all the obvious contradictions, he doesn’t like some of the more hateful bible passages, thinks his pastor is full of himself, etc.

    I listen to him when he’s upset at something in his church and notice how close he is to atheism, if he only understood what atheism is. Dawkins said something to that effect; that all us atheists do is take the next logical step from observing biblical contradictions (and dismissing parts that you don’t like) to tossing aside the entire thing.

    But I can’t get too deep into atheism with my co-worker, after all we are in the workplace and I could throw the whole place into chaos if I’m not careful. I also think he’s a pretty good guy and I don’t want to upset him. I don’t think he knows of my atheism, but he knows I’m not too fond of religion. So I tread very carefully and pick my battles. One day I’ll patiently explain atheism to him and let him chew on it for a while. But not at work—-I repair his cars for him so I’ll have my chance.

  • Alison

    You know, I just remembered something similar that my sixth grade teacher said to us as an example of the importance of critical thinking and not going with the consensus. He began telling us that the moon landing was faked, that there was no such thing as gravity – that the earth was hollow, we were on the inside being held to the ground by centrifugal force. He went on and on until there were few dissenting voices. When he had gotten us to the point where only one girl held fast in her disbelief, he explained to us that we needed to stop accepting that something was true just because someone in authority told them it was, or because everyone else had been convinced, and he had been lying all the time. I’m not sure how many others in the class took it to heart. Most of them, rather than getting the point, simply became angry that the teacher had fooled them. I remembered it, and it’s still vivid to this day. Funny, though, that part of the reason I decided it was right to question and disagree was that the kids who were taken in the fastest were the dim bulbs, and the girl who held fast to the end was one I admired for her intelligence and wisdom beyond her years. I think that may be another way this psychological mechanism still holds. Even when we disagree, someone, somewhere, has also held our viewpoint, so we’re still part of another group. We may be the lone dissenter in the group we’re currently surrounded by, but we’re more able to hold and support our position because somewhere else we’re supported by other dissenters. Even more reason to be open and vocal, then, because someone out there isn’t speaking up because he doesn’t want to be the only one in the world.

  • BlackSun

    Excellent post, Ebonmuse!!

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I am forever grateful to my parents for equipping me for atheism. By forcing my attendance in church, they ensured that my atheism was not blind rebellion but a true search. By telling me to think for myself, they brought about a contempt for conformity in me. And by encouraging me to always stick to my guns, and teaching me how to do so, they prepared me to handle the pressure that the group always inflicts.

  • Polly

    I distrust myself. I always have. I definitely would have been in the 75%.
    Now, I don’t know which came first but around the time I “turned”, I started asking questions a lot. Where I used to accept things (just trivial stuff) I started to scrutinize things instead, like movies, people’s motives, and even those e-mail photos of bizarre accidents. It’s like a question-generator was installed in my brain.

    In the short story, “In Bondage” the writer (Fyodor Sologub) made one of his young characters both, curious about the whole world and gullible. Because of the boy’s insatiable thirst for knowledge he accepted everything people told him. I’d never seen those two traits associated. But, it made perfect sense in my case and, I would surmise, in the case of many children. But, turn the same trait of knowledge-seeking from passive learner to question asker and you get the makings of a SKEPTIC.
    Being an atheist has made me trust my own reasoning more and has armed me with the knowledge that I have the right to demand reasons for accepting what others say. The tradition of ascribing authority is not enough anymore.

  • bobby

    Before accepting my atheism like Polly I’d have been in that 75% of ‘needing to be like the rest’ bunch. Now I’ve broken out, broken free of that mind numbing attitude to become inconspicuous, to stand out and be proud of the beliefs I hold, it’s like a part of me I never knew has been shown to me. For me those other 7 in the room are respected family members and my own children, and it’s been a hard won struggle to hold fast to my own line. Their doubts are there, I see them, I don’t encorage them, I let them free-think. I only hope that they come to a conclusion like I have, that brings them contentment.

  • Ceetar (zzzz)

    I’d like to see the experiment done where that one guy that gives the right answer is either a trusted person (Teacher, Father, Preacher, etc) or a distrusted person(homeless guy, drunkard, George Bush, etc)

    I think the results to that would be interesting and a little more informative.

  • Ceetar (zzzz)

    I’d like to see the experiment done where that one guy that gives the right answer is either a trusted person (Teacher, Father, Preacher, etc) or a distrusted person(homeless guy, drunkard, George Bush, etc)

    I think the results to that would be interesting and a little more informative.

  • Archi Medez

    Ebonmuse, excellent article!

  • cmills

    Thumpalumpacus made a very important and valid point.

    “I am forever grateful to my parents for equipping me for atheism. By forcing my attendance in church, they ensured that my atheism was not blind rebellion but a true search. By telling me to think for myself, they brought about a contempt for conformity in me. And by encouraging me to always stick to my guns, and teaching me how to do so, they prepared me to handle the pressure that the group always inflicts.”

    Blind rebellion is the phrase which stands out most to me. Are some atheists not simply following a trend or acting out of anger? I encourage all atheists who have a limited understanding of different religions to study them and thus reinforce their clear understanding of the truth of things. Anyone can memorize some rhetoric and rally around a cause, but a person of true conviction will arm themself with knowledge and understanding of what they are against.

  • Sharon

    Thank you, i throughly enjoyed reading your thoughts, lots to think about.