Solomon E. Asch (September 14, 1907 - February 20, 1996) was a world-renowned American Gestalt psychologist and pioneer in social psychology. Modern social psychology built on and elaborated his theoretical and experimental approach. In essence his view was that human beings behave according to how they perceive the world, not how it actually is, and that their perception is as much affected by social influences as physical reality. His 1952 text Social Pschology was revolutionary in its approach and became the standard text in the field of social psychology for decades. This classic textbook is still relevant today.
Solomon Asch is famous for his research in the field of conformity where his well known experiments showed that social pressure can make a person say something that is obviously incorrect. His findings serve as a warning that the human tendency to conform, which may be valuable in maintaining a harmonious and cohesive society, can be dangerous when the majority opinion is incorrect. Asch remained positive in his belief in the goodness of human beings and our capacity for independence. While his experiments uncovered the tendency to conform among many people they also revealed the existence of independence in the face of erroneous group opinion. His findings also showed that resistance to social pressure is greatly enhanced by the presence of even one dissenter who stands firm in their belief in the truth.
Solomon Asch was born on September 14, 1907 in Warsaw, Poland, which at that time belonged to the Russian Empire. His family moved to the United States in 1920, where they lived in New York City. The young Asch learned English by reading the works of Charles Dickens.
He received his bachelors degree from The College of the City of New York in 1928. Asch went on to study psychology at Columbia University, where he received his master's degree in 1930 and Ph.D. in 1932. His principal mentor at Columbia was the pioneering Gestalt psychologist, Max Wertheimer.
Asch continued to live and work in the New York area for several years. He married his wife, Florence, and their son, Peter, was born while they lived in Brooklyn. Peter became a professor of economics at Rutgers University, where Solomon Asch also taught.
Asch had a distinguished academic career as a psychologist that spanned half a century. After holding a number of teaching positions in New York, including at Brooklyn College and the New School for Social Research, he taught for 19 years at Swarthmore College where he worked with a group of prominent psychologists including Wolfgang Köhler, another key figure in the development Gestalt psychology. He also held visiting posts at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Asch served as professor and director of the Institute for Cognitive Studies at Rutgers University from 1966 to 1972, after which he joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania as a professor in 1972, remaining there as emeritus professor from 1979.
Asch's research focused on the impact of the social context on our perception and understanding of the world. His most famous studies were on conformity. He recounted an early childhood experience in Poland as the inspiration for this work. Attending a Passover Seder as a young boy he had asked who the extra glass of wine was for and was told the prophet Elijah. He was also told that Elijah would indeed drink the wine. With that expectation, Asch thought he saw the level of the wine drop a little.
He began his research in the 1930s when Adolf Hitler had come to power and social influence, in the form of propaganda and indoctrination, on people's behavior was of great interest. Based on his studies, Asch concluded that propaganda is most effective when ignorance and fear are combined. However, he held the belief that human beings seek truth not falsehood, and that although they can be misled into regrettable actions people will act in a good way when given the appropriate information.
As well as his teaching and research, Asch served as president of the Division of Personality and Social Psychology of the American Psychological Association and as chairman of its Committee on Academic Freedom in 1957. He was also associate editor of the journal Psychological Review from 1957 to 1962.
Asch received many awards including the Nicholas Murray Butler Medal from Columbia University in 1962 and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association in 1967.
Solomon Asch died on February 20, 1996 in Haverford, Pennsylvania at the age of 88. Florence Asch, his wife of years, survived him for six years, dying on March 27, 2002 aged 92.
Solomon Asch began his work as a student and later colleague of Gestalt psychologists. They regarded perception, learning, and cognition as structured wholes rather than the sum of individual components connected by association, and thus were in opposition to the Behaviorist approach. The Gestalt school, however, held in common with Behaviorism the importance of the scientific method, and both rejected the introspective approach and the psychoanalytic school.
With this background, when Asch turned his attention to the impact of social factors on our perception of the world his approach was groundbreaking. Through his experiments Asch demonstrated the importance of socially defined reality, or the influence of social factors such as peer pressure on our perception of the world. His research led to seminal studies in the field of social psychology, in particular his famous experiments on conformity.
Asch's work was more than a series of experiments, however, as his writings set the direction for this field in the twentieth century. He published his textbook Social Psychology in 1952. This classic text presented his view of psychology as a scientific enterprise, using the scientific method:
If there must be principles of scientific method, then surely the first to claim our attention is that one should describe phenomena faithfully and allow them to guide the choice of problems and procedures (Asch 1952).
For Asch, the aim of psychology is to understand the human being, which he recognized to act and think both as an individual and in a group. The relationship between the individual and the social group is complex, as the individual influences how the group behaves and also the group affects the individual's behavior:
We must see group phenomena as both the product and condition of actions of individuals (Asch 1952).
Most social acts have to be understood in their setting, and lose meaning if isolated. No error in thinking about social facts is more serious than the failure to see their place and function (Asch 1952).
Asch's conformity experiments, which were published in the early 1950s, were a series of studies that starkly demonstrated the power of conformity in groups. The basic purpose of the experiment was to set physical and social reality at odds—subjects were faced with the evidence of their senses being opposed by the opinion of a group of their peers. The basic paradigm involved asking each participant to make simple judgments about visual stimuli (that they had no problem answering correctly when alone) after being led to believe that all other members of a viewing group had the same, but incorrect, opinion. The results showed that a significant number of participants conformed to the group on at least one occasion.
In the original experiment (Asch 1955) male college students were gathered in groups of seven to nine participants. Only one was the real subject; all the others were confederates who had been instructed on how to respond. The experimenter told the participants they would be shown a card with a single vertical line, the standard, followed by a card with three vertical lines. Their task was to state out loud which of the three lines was the same length as the standard line. The participants announced their answers one by one in order around the room. On the third trial the confederates unanimously chose the same wrong line, leaving the real subject alone in picking the correct answer. As the experiment continued the subject faced this group pressure to conform to the wrong response for a total of 12 out of 18 trials. To Asch's surprise, a significant number of subjects (over 30 percent) did conform to the obviously wrong response.
Individual variation in the subjects was also noted, with some subjects following the majority almost all the time while others (approximately 25 percent) maintained their independence and always gave the correct answer. In an effort to increase this rate independence, or decrease the rate of conformity, the discrepancy between the standard line and the other lines was increased. Surprisingly, even when the difference was as much as seven inches there were still some subjects who yielded to the pressure of the group. Asch regarded this finding with great concern:
That we have found the tendency to conformity in our society so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct (Asch 1955).
Further experiments studied the factors that lead to such conformity. It was found that changing the number of confederates giving the wrong responses was significant. When only a single confederate gave the wrong response there was little impact on the subject, but when the group was increased so that three gave the same wrong response the subject conformed to their error at a rate of 32 percent. Further increases in the number of confederates had little impact. On the other hand, reducing the unanimity of the confederates' responses was also important. When one confederate continued to give the correct response the subject's conformity was greatly reduced. This finding illuminates the power that even a small dissenting minority can have (Asch 1956). Interestingly, this finding held whether or not the dissenting confederate gave the correct answer. As long as the dissenting confederate gave an answer that was different from the majority, participants were more likely to give the correct answer.
Asch's experiments raised at least as many, if not more, questions than they provided answers. One question concerns the motivation of the subjects. Rather than testing conformity, Asch's study may have simply measured an uninterested student's reluctance to engage in conflict over the answers. This interpretation is supported by the finding that when even one confederate was allowed to give the correct answer, conforming responses dropped significantly.
A meta-analysis of conformity studies following Asch's paradigm reported that measures of conformity are not consistent. For example, they found that conformity among Americans has declined since the 1950s. Analysis of studies in other countries suggested that cultural variables, in particular the country's rating of the value of individualism versus collectivism, was significantly related to the conformity of its citizens (Bond and Smith 1996).
Asch's experiments did not distinguish between behavioral acquiescence and actual change in perception. His subjects were interviewed at the end of the experiment and a variety of reasons were given. Some reported that they followed the majority opinion so as not to spoil the results, or to fit in with the group. Several of those who conformed to the majority response attributed their performance to their own misjudgment and "poor eyesight." A 2005 study by Berns and colleagues using functional MRI scanners showed that social conformity engages regions of the brain devoted to spatial awareness (Berns et al 2005). In other words, experimental subjects in their study who gave in to group pressure actually saw things that way. Conformity in this case was due to a change in perception rather than conscious judgment.
The legacy of Solomon Asch is evident in the field of social psychology which he helped to define. His pioneering approach, both theoretically and experimentally, established the view that human behavior is not a response to the world as it is but as it is perceived.
The great challenge for social psychology has been to create a harmonious combination of the rigor of natural science with the rich complexity of human social life. The greatness of Asch's work lies in how he showed the way to this balanced and productive blend of natural and social science. On the one hand, Asch was a pioneer of the clever and crucial experiment, of disciplined data collection with an eye toward alternative accounts. On the other hand, he insisted on the fundamental role of context and relations, the richness of the human mind, and the importance of being informed by history, culture, the arts, and human common sense. In contrast to the two dominant ideologies in psychology in his time, behaviorism and psychoanalysis, Asch assumed that humans were basically rational and decent, and that the social world and social matrix of human life had a level of organization worth of attention in its own right.
Asch's Social Pschology, first published in 1952 and reprinted in 1987, was revolutionary in its approach and became the standard text in the field for decades and remains relevant today.
It was Solomon Asch that inspired the work of the controversial psychologist Stanley Milgram. He served as Asch's teaching and research assistant at Harvard University, as well as helping him edit a book on conformity, and considered Asch to be the most important scientific influence on his research (Blass 2004). In his own research Milgram explored the possibility that social pressure had the power to influence something more consequential than the simple line judgments that Asch had used. Milgram's experiments on obedience to authority shocked the world.
Solomon Asch also cooperated with Herman Witkin (1916—1979) and inspired many of his ideas on cognitive style. Witkin was interested in how personality can be revealed through differences in how people perceive their environment. While Asch studied the impact of the social environment, Witkin focused on the perceptual context. He developed the Embedded Figures Test which identifies an individual's perception when asked to distinguish object figures from the content field, a distracting or confusing background, in which they are set. This instrument distinguishes field-independent from field-dependent cognitive types. Field-independent people are quickly able to find the hidden figures, while field-dependent people have trouble locating simple figures embedded within more complex surroundings.
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