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Social and behavioural, Teaching and learning

Textbook coverage of this classic social psychology study has become increasingly biased

The studies showed the power of people’s independence in the face of misguided majority, and yet paradoxically they have come to be known widely as the “conformity experiments”.

25 March 2015

By Christian Jarrett

Like Zimbardo’s prison study and Milgram’s so-called “obedience experiments”, the research that Solomon Asch conducted at Swarthmore College in the 1950s has acquired an almost mythical quality, being distorted and exaggerated in frequent retellings over time. Asch’s studies arguably showed the power of people’s independence in the face of an apparently misguided majority, and yet paradoxically they’ve come to be known widely as the “conformity experiments”.

This biased characterisation is found on Wikipedia and even on Google auto-complete. Worse still, an analysis of textbook coverage of Asch’s work from the 50s to the 80s found that, here too, coverage of the findings was highly tendentious.

Now Richard Griggs, emeritus professor at the University of Florida, has assessed some of the most popular contemporary introductory psychology texts and his finding is that coverage of Asch’s seminal work has grown increasingly biased and misleading, not less.

First a recap of Asch’s research. Lone participants were embedded in groups of what they thought were other participants, but were in fact actors working for Asch. The apparently simple task was to say, on each trial, which of three comparison lines matched a reference line for length. On most trials, the participant heard the other group members unanimously choose the wrong line, and the key test was whether the participant would go along with the blatantly wrong consensus, or stay true to their own judgments.

The results arguably provide a powerful demonstration of people’s confidence in their own perception and their willingness to defy majority opinion. The majority of participants’ responses (63.2 per cent vs. 36.8 per cent) went against the erroneous majority. Stated differently, 25 per cent of the sample consistently defied majority opinion, compared with just 5 per cent of participants who were always swayed by the crowd. In 1952, Asch himself wrote: “… the facts that were being judged were, under the circumstances, the most decisive.”

But that’s not the account you’ll find in most popular introductory psychology textbooks, at least in the US. Griggs’ new assessment of 20 such books published or re-issued in the last few years finds the conformity narrative dominates stronger than ever – just one book reported the larger percentage of participant responses that defied majority opinion, compared with 14 of them that reported the smaller percentage of responses that were swayed by the crowd.

Moreover, sixteen of the books mentioned the proportion of participants (75 per cent) who were influenced by majority opinion at least once, yet none of the books mentioned the far larger proportion of participants (95 per cent) who “rebelled” at least once. Only three books included mention of studies that have criticised the popular conformity interpretation. And just one book mentioned the interview data that Asch published, which reinforces the independence perspective (many participants said that although they had agreed with the group on occasions out of awkwardness, they were certain all along that the group were wrong).

Comparing the results from this new contemporary analysis with the analysis of textbook coverage from the 50s to the 80s, shows an increasingly biased portrayal of the Asch studies. The mischaracterisation of Asch’s work as demonstrative of people’s readiness to conform has not waned, it has become more entrenched. This disappointing picture was repeated and reinforced when Griggs conducted a follow-up analysis focused on modern social psychology texts (to match the social psych focus of the earlier textbook analysis).

Griggs calls the state of affairs “truly baffling” and he appeals to textbook authors to modify their coverage to “add some discussion of Asch’s findings on independence”. Why do modern textbooks get this so wrong? In fact the situation with Asch is part of a wider bias in social psychology towards narratives of obedience and conformity, to the neglect of discussion and investigation of dissent. For example, historically, the resistance to tyranny shown by many participants in Zimbardo’s prison study has been largely been ignored, and so too has the disobedience shown by many participants in Milgram’s seminal work. It is surely time for more psychology textbook authors to show a little independence of their own, and to cease regurgitating the popular but inaccurate trope of men and women as obedient, conformist minions.

Further reading

Griggs, R. (2015). The Disappearance of Independence in Textbook Coverage of Asch’s Social Pressure Experiments Teaching of Psychology, 42 (2), 137-142 DOI: 10.1177/0098628315569939