On conformism among social psychologists

This post was first published in 2006 on the Alphapsy blog.

In a previous post on deliberative democracy, I said that people often attack deliberative democracy on the ground that people are conformists; and they do so by relying on Asch’s famous experiment. This experiment, although one of the best known in social psychology, has suffered from a widespread misunderstanding. In a recent and very challenging paper, Hodges and Geyer reassess Asch’s experiment: a must read.

Picture shows an advertisement to plebiscit Général de Gaulle in France. "Vous êtes la majorité" means "You are the majority".



The experiments provide powerful evidence for people’s tendency to tell the truth even when others do not. They also provide compelling evidence of people’s concern for others and their views. However, the studies are almost never described in such terms. Rather they are often presented as “one of the most dramatic illustrations of conformity, of blindly going along with the group, even when the individual realizes that by doing so he turns his back on reality and truth” (Moscovici, 1985b, p. 349).



The focus of our account is that there are multiple values and multiple relations that properly constrain the actions of those in the Asch situation and that participants are motivated to maintain the integrity of these multiple values and relations.

The reassessment of the traditional interpretation of Asch’s experiment is important for psychology in terms of knowledge and in terms of paradigmatic orientation (see Krueger and Funder’s appeal in BBS in favor of a more balanced social psychology, namely less negative). It is also important for those in the social sciences (like Boyd and Richerson who have frequently quoted Asch) who think that people are conformist. Furthermore, it emphasizes an important methodological aspect in psychology : in an experiment, there are often some moral dilemmas hidden to the psychologist.

But let's start with the original results :

75% of the participants agree less than 25% of the time.

Furthermore, Asch’s (1956) interview data “suggest that actual change in perception of the stimulus is extremely rare…In contrast, many persons said they had agreed with the group but were certain at the time that the group was wrong italics added” (Allen, 1965, p. 143).

The article is well written but quite long, I shall select large quotations.

A moral dilemma

Hodges and Geyer remind us that :

Asch intended his experimental situation to be a moral dilemma, one that pitted “truth” against “consensus” (Asch, 1952), or “independence” against “submission” (Asch, 1951).

However, one of the key point of the article is their question :

Was Asch right to assume that an individual’s moral obligation in the situation is to “call it as he sees it” without consideration of what others say? Do the occasional agreements of participants with erroneous others represent an epistemic or ethical failure?

Previous analysts have assumed a “zero-tolerance norm” (Krueger & Funder, 2004): Agreement on even a single critical trial is sufficient to count the individual as conforming (Friend et al., 1990). This strong criterion is seen as justified because the situation is a simple one; either one states the obvious truth or one denies it. Any agreement at all is take nto indicate epistemic confusion, ethical weakness, or both.

They might be considered the typical participants, those who (on average) dissent from the group nine times 75%) and agree three times (25%). Why would someone do this ?

The non moral theories (self presentation for example) face the same problem : it is difficult to see how participants avoided ridicule by dissenting most or all of the time (which about 65% did).

Not only do theories need to explain the predominance of truth-telling dissent, they also need to explain the wide variability of responses.

Hodges and Geyer’s is that there’s more than just choice between truth and conformism. One have also to take into account trust (i.e., taking seriously the value of others’ claims), social solidarity (i.e., a commitment to integrate the views of self and others without deprecating either). They need to care for other participants, the experimenter, themselves, and the worth of scientific research.

A question of pragmatics

Asch (1956) claimed that by agreeing to be in the experiment, participants obligate themselves to speak truthfully to the experimenter. Truth is a value that participants must acknowledge (Brown & Levinson, 1987; Grice, 1975), but Asch (1956) overlooked the fact that the participant must in the same utterance also say what is appropriate for other participants.

Rather than understand the participant’s dilemma as being tempted to stray from the truth (Asch’s analysis), we could think of it in the following way: How can participants speak the truth about their situation in a way that honors their personal integrity (i.e., their own perception) and that is sensitive to and respectful of the experimenter, the other participants, and the situation in which they all find themselves?

They might mostly give their own view (a simple perceptual conviction), but occasionally go along with the majority just to let them know that they had paid attention to them. It might serve as a kind of signal to the majority that, whereas they disagreed with them, they did not think them crazy and irrelevant to their own judgment and action.

“Three, sir”

What resources for pragmatic inventiveness are available to participants to communicate such an acknowledgment? One example of such inventiveness is illustrated in an anecdote Asch (1951) reported. A participant who always dissented “announced” all disagreeing answers in the form of “Three, sir,” but did not do so when everyone gave the correct answer. It is likely these formalities are an implied message to his peers that he feels he cannot help disagreeing with them because he is bound by his obligation to the experimenter, the authority figure who has brought them all together.

Because there are 12 critical trials, participants can attempt to balance their differing obligations by varying their choices across trials as a pragmatic expression of the truth of their situation and as a signal of their acknowledgment of disagreement nd their openness to further conversation.

The values–pragmatics hypothesis leads one to expect that the order of agreements and disagreements will be patterned in ways that signal participants’ perception of the truth and their willingness to work with others to achieve a just and comprehensive account of their situation.

Thus, if assents (i.e., incorrect answers) are to have signal value they will be distributed across trials

Their hypothesis leads to several predictions. One of them is the following :

The values–pragmatics account predicts that participants in Asch-type situations will be more likely to agree with strangers than with friends. Because friends have well-established levels of trust and honesty, pragmatic signals of solidarity are less needed. Friends can be blunt in a way strangers cannot (Heider, 1958). By contrast, conformity theories (e.g., Cialdini & Trost, 1998; Graham, 1962) predict the reverse: They assume increased identification and cohesion produce greater normative and informational pressures.

Cultural and situation dependant values

Note that the values participants have to take into account depends on their culture and the situation they're in.

The integrity of the group generally matters more than the tightness of the fit between individual utterances and their referents. Thus, to Westerners, Chinese may sometimes seem “loose” in what they say, but Chinese consider it as a necessary form of tolerance to be true to the relationship. As M. H. Bond (1990, p. 59) has put it: “In a high-context culture such protection of relationships is often construed to be a higher good than a slavish adherence to what is, after all, only one person’s limited perspective on reality.”

Sometimes in American settings priority is given to social solidarity (e.g., “How do I look?” is not likely to get a blunt answer by Americans), and sometimes personal assertion will occur in Chinese settings (e.g., a son confronting his father when he believes the family as a whole would be harmed). Research even suggests that the typical American and Chinese ways of conversing are reversed in certain contexts.

It does not mean, however, that people in collectivistic cultures are more altruistic, conformists and so on. It reminds me of Turiel’s discussion of the individualist/collectivist distinction.

Based on the pragmatic considerations contrasting Chinese and American orderings of truth-in-relationship and truth-in-reference, discussed earlier, we predict that dissent will be more readily expressed in an American family than in a Chinese one, especially in public settings, but there might be less difference or even a reversal in intimate settings that invite expressions of social support.

The reference to Turiel reminds me of another debate in the psychology of morality. Long ago, Piaget thought that very young children care only about approval, not about morality. Turiel’s experiments with conventional norms and moral norms showed that, in certain cases (moral norms), children as young as 4 or 5 can disagree with an adult or condemn norms in other country that seem to them immoral. They display the same ability to dissent from adult for moral reasons in Asch’s experiment.

For example, when placed in situations where perceptual evidence and socialinformation are in tension, children will often dissent from the social consensus (as do adults). Evidence (e.g., Crittenden & DiLalla, 1988; Feinman, 1992; Kuczynski & Hildebrandt, 1997; Matas, Arend, & Sroufe, 1978) indicates that children care about truth, not just approval, and engage in more dissent than is generally appreciated.

On conformism among social psychologists

There would be a fascinating study to do in epidemiology of representations about the Asch experiment. Although, it is not my point, it would be interesting to know why the conformist interpretation is so widespread. Hodges and Geyer have their idea :

That is, social psychologists sometimes believe they should warn students, policymakers, and practitioners of various dangers, fallacies, and temptations, and they may fear that if their advice is not simple and pointed, it will be misunderstood or misapplied.

For example, consider Gilovich and Eibach’s (2001) objection against Sabini, Siepmann, et al.’s (2001b) attempt to challenge and complicate our understanding of findings often labeled as the fundamental attribution error. They claimed that Sabini, Siepmann, et al.’s analysis “robs social psychology of one of its great humanizing messages” (p. 26).

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