In TOK human sciences, what does the Asch experiment show about the tendency to conform?

Have you ever felt that you need to dress in a certain way on a certain occasion just to fit in? So why do we sometimes feel the pressure to conform?

To explore the idea of conformity here’s a utube clip about the Asch experiment from the 1950’s. Solomon Asch took a group of people to take part in what they thought was an eye sight experiment. They were asked to judge which two lines matched up and had the same length as each other.

Obviously line x matches with line B; they are equal lengths. In reality all but one of the people in the group (the guy in the white T-shirt) was a confederate of the experimenter and ‘in on’ the experiment. The experiment was actually about the one student (the study participant) who was ignorant of what was going on; it was a test to see how they would respond to the behaviour of the confederates.

In the experiment all the participants are seated in a class room and in turn are asked to call out their answer to questions so everyone can hear them. The questions are to do with comparing the length of lines. The confederates always give the same answer as each other and say their answers before the study participant. At first the confederates give correct answers but gradually begin to give incorrect answers. It is significant that the study participant often gave answers that conform to what the confederates say even if the answers are wrong. The experiment reveals how people will deny what they see and submit to group pressure.

There may be various reasons for the study participant giving incorrect reasons. They might genuinely believe the group is correct: “They must be right; there’s four of them and one of me”. If the group is unanimous we might be less likely to challenge it. Or the study participant might give a response that they know is wrong to avoid the discomfort of disagreeing with the group.

You might consider the implications of the Asch experiment. Does it imply that we behave like sheep? Could there be a reasonable reason for conforming? Are the results of the Asch experiment are surprising? Is there an evolutionary justification for our need to follow the ‘wisdom of crowds’? Or is the pressure to conform something that we should actively resist? Significantly, even if only one confederate gave a different answer to the rest of the group, the participant was much more likely to give their own correct answer rather than feel the need to conform. Perhaps this shows the influence that even one dissenting voice can have.

You could investigate this further by looking at what we know about conformity in other areas of knowledge such as history, natural sciences, and the arts. You might investigate how far culture plays a role.


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