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In a compelling revival of a classic social psychology experiment, a new study has found that group pressure significantly influences individual decisions, not just in simple tasks but also in expressing political opinions. This modern replication and extension of Solomon Asch's famed experiments of the 1950s provides new insights into human behavior. The findings appear in the journal PLOS One.

Over 70 years ago, Solomon Asch conducted a series of ground-breaking experiments that fundamentally changed our understanding of conformity. Asch's experiment was straightforward but powerful. He invited individuals to participate in a group task where they had to match line lengths.

Unbeknownst to the main participant, the rest of the group were confederates — people in on the experiment. These confederates gave deliberately wrong answers to see if the participant would conform to the group's incorrect consensus or trust their own judgment. Astonishingly, Asch found that a significant number of people chose to conform to the obviously wrong group decision rather than rely on their own perceptions.

Fast forward to the present, and researchers at the University of Bern decided to revisit and expand upon Asch's seminal work. Their motivation was twofold. Firstly, they wanted to see if Asch's findings, primarily conducted with American students, still held true in a different cultural and temporal context. Secondly, they were curious to explore the impact of monetary incentives on decisions and how this dynamic plays out in more complex decision-making areas like political opinions.

"The study of Solomon Asch is a classic study that has attracted a lot of attention for a long time in the social sciences," explained study authors Axel Franzen and Sebastian Mader, a professor and a postdoctoral researcher, respectively, at the university's Institute of Sociology. "The Asch experiment is part of the class 'classical studies of empirical social research' which we teach regularly at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Since the results of Asch look very impressive we were often wondering whether they still hold today or whether it is a phenomenon of the United States during the 1950s.

"There was also a lot of discussion about replicability in psychology and in the social sciences in general. Hence, we decided that it might be a good idea to conduct a replication of Asch. Moreover, we were sitting in our home offices during the COVID-19 pandemic observing many governments and many people thinking and doing the same thing. This inspired us to investigate conformity.

The researchers designed a three-part experiment involving 210 participants, mainly students from the University of Bern. The first part replicated Asch's line length judgment task, with a twist. In addition to the original format (now the non-incentivized group), they introduced a group where correct answers were monetarily rewarded (the incentivized group).

In the second part, participants were presented with political statements and asked to express their agreement or disagreement, again in the presence of confederates who had predetermined responses. The final part involved an online questionnaire designed to measure various traits, including the Big Five personality dimensions, self-esteem, intelligence, and the need for social approval.

The study's findings were striking in their similarity to Asch's original results. In the non-incentivized group, the average error rate in the line judgment task was 33%, closely mirroring Asch's findings. However, in the incentivized group, the error rate dropped to 25%. This suggests that while financial rewards can reduce the impact of group pressure, they do not eliminate it.

"When we started the study, we could not imagine to be able to replicate the original findings as close as it turned out," Franzen and Mader told PsyPost. "We thought Asch's findings were overstated. We also believed that providing incentives for correct answers would wipe out the conformity effect. Both did not happen. The replication turned out to be very close to the original results and providing monetary incentives did not eliminate the effect of social pressure."

In terms of political opinions, the experiment revealed that group pressure significantly influenced participants' responses to political statements. An average conformity rate of 38% was observed. This extension of Asch's work into the realm of opinion demonstrates the broader applicability of his findings beyond simple perceptual tasks.

As for personality traits, the results indicated that openness was the only trait among the Big Five that had a significant correlation with conformity levels. Individuals who scored higher on the openness trait tended to conform less to the group's incorrect answers in the line judgment task. This suggests that people who are more open-minded and independent in their thinking are less likely to be swayed by the opinions or judgments of others, even when faced with the pressure of a unanimous group decision.

Other traits, including intelligence, self-esteem, and the need for social approval, showed no substantial impact on the tendency to conform.

Regarding what people should take away from the findings, the researchers remarked: "Here we like to cite Mark Twain, 'Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.'"

While the study offers valuable insights, it's important to note its limitations. Primarily, the participants were university students, which may not represent the broader population. Future research with more diverse demographics could provide a more comprehensive understanding of conformity across different social backgrounds and age groups.

Additionally, the study raises intriguing questions for further exploration. For instance, would the results hold in a group of friends or acquaintances rather than strangers? How might larger monetary incentives impact conformity? Would the findings be similar for more extreme or personally relevant political statements?

"Our research leaves much room for further studies: For example, we also used a student sample," Franzen and Mader explained. "Hence, it would be nice to demonstrate the power of conformity with non-student samples. Such an extension would also allow to study the effect of age, education, social class, and occupations on the susceptibility to conformity. Furthermore, our monetary incentives were small, giving rise to the question whether lager incentives further decrease the level of conformity. There are also other forms of incentives, e.g. social reputation, which are interesting to study further."

The study, "The power of social influence: A replication and extension of the Asch experiment", was published November 29, 2023.