Asch's Study of Conformity, 1951

Asch's Comparison of Lines Experiment (COLE), 1951 which seeks to study the influence of a majority on a minority in seemingly clear, unambiguous scenarios.

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An earlier study had taken place by Sherif in 1935 which studied the theory that people would give similar answers to every one else when they were unsure of their own opinion. In other words, Sherif studied conformity.

His experiment asked people to estimate the distance of movement from a light source. This was an ambiguous task as the light source didn't actually move at all.

However, Asch questioned this idea of conformity claiming that true conformity lies not in the response to ambiguous tasks but in giving similar responses to other people in very clear, unambiguous tasks.

In other words, when the answer was just so clear! The person still insists of giving the wrong answer so long as they remain alike to their peers.

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Asch showed the participants two cards. On one was drawn a single line and on the other, three comparison lines were drawn. Anyone with 'normal' eyesight would have clearly known the right sized comparison line.

Only one of the participants was 'naive', the others (in a group of amount eight or nine) were 'stooges' or 'confederates', who had been briefed beforehand.

The naive participant was made to answer last, or second to last, of the group - obviously with the intention being, undeniably knowing the majority decision on a very unambiguous task.

Overall there were six neutral trials - where the stooges gave the correct answers.

There were twelve critical trials - where the stooges each gave the same wrong answer.

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32% conformity rate!

In other words, just under a third of naive participants in all critical trials conformed to the majority decision, despite clearly knowing their answer was wrong.

0% conformed on all of the 12 critical trials.

25% no conformity throughout!

75% conformity at least once!

Asch's study does show the impact of the majority on a minority, especially as the answer was unambiguous. However, it wasn't ground-breaking results in that no one felt the need to conform on every trial, nor did the majority have the same effect on every individual - which suggests individual differences play a part....

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  • Conformity rates are culturally, socially and politically dependant
  • Experiment was repeated a number of times by various other psychologists and no one found exactly the same results - which raises questions of reliability.
  • Asch considered whether the amount of the majority was a key factor. He found that instead of numbers having an influence, it was instead the mere unanimity of answers that had the most influence.
  • In Asch's paradigm, one one naive participant was tested at a time which makes this experiment time-consuming and uneconomical.
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