Conformity is a form of social influence which involves an individual altering their behaviour or beliefs to fit into the majority group. Different explanations have been proposed such as informative social influence, which occurs when we feel we lack correct information about situations, therefore look to the group as we feel they are more expert. This is a cognitive process as we generally want to be right in any given situation. Another explanation is normative social influence where people have a desire to behave like others and not stand out to avoid looking unintelligent or avoid rejection from the majority group. This is an emotional process as we prefer social approval from others within society. Rachlinski (2000) argues that ‘Societies that cannot control socially destructive behaviour collapse into dysfunction becoming completely crime-ridden or anarchic’. In this essay, I will be critically examining Asch’s 1951 research of conformity to social norms and its implications.
In 1951 Asch conducted a laboratory experiment to investigate the extent to which social pressure from the majority group could affect a person to conform. 50 male student participants were told they were participating in a ‘vision test’ using line judgment task, Asch placed each participant in a room of 7 confederates, each person had to state aloud which comparison line (A, B or C) was identical to the target line with the answer always being obvious. The results obtained showed 32% of participants conformed to the clearly incorrect majority with 75% conforming at least once and 25% having never conformed, this was compared to the control group who received no pressure to conform to the majority with only 1% conforming.
One limitation of Asch’s research is that it is considered a ‘child of its time’ due to the research being conducted in the 1950’s, a very conformist time for America as it was involved in an anti-communist witch-hunt against those thought to hold sympathetic left-wing views. Conformity among Americans was very common as expected. This may have affected the results obtained as later studies conducted using similar methods found only 1 conforming response out of 396 trials (Perrin and Spencer, 1980) suggesting that Asch’s effect is not consistent over time, Therefore Asch’s 1951 study lacks historical validity due to cultural change.
Asch’s research also suffers from cultural bias as the USA is a very individualistic where individuals are concerned with themselves contrasting collectivist cultures such as China which places more emphasis and concern on the group’s opinions. Further research between the two cultures has shown collectivist cultures to be more conformist than individualistic cultures (Smith and bond, 1998). Therefore Asch’s research lacks universalism as the results cannot be generalised to other cultures than individualist.
Furthermore, the results obtained may be due to demand characteristics as the research was carried out in laboratory settings which may have been unfamiliar. It has been argued that conformity rates may have differed if participants were surrounded by friends compared to strangers. Conformity to the majority has been found to be greater among friends compared to strangers (Williams and sogon, 1984) as they are more likely to care about the opinions of other group members if they are friends. Therefore Asch’s research lacks ecological validity.
Additionally, Asch’s research findings suffers from gender bias as American males were the only participants Asch accounted for in his research as there was no comparison of conformity between males and females. Further research suggests that women are more conformist than men due to concern about social relationships and being accepted by the majority (Neto, 1995) this suggests that conformity levels may have been higher than Asch found.
In conclusion, Asch’s research could have been improved by studying conformity across cultures to allow for comparison between cultures for cultural relativism, also he could have made the sample more representative of the wider population allowing for valid generalisation of findings. However, it is imperative to understand the Importance of Asch’s study of conformity to social norms on our understanding of what it means to conform and what causes people to conform to social norms, this in turn has positive implications in applications of conformity theory to marketing practice (Lascu and Zinkhan, 1999) as social science researchers have noted social influence as an important determinant of an individual’s behaviour which affects their purchasing decisions and creates individual differences in the decision making process(Abrams, 1994; Kropp et al., 2005; Moschis, 1987).