Solomon Asch was a 20th century psychologist best known for his experiments in social conformity, called the Asch Paradigm or Asch Conformity Experiments.

Early Life

Solomon E. Asch was born in 1907 in Warsaw, Poland. When he was thirteen years old, his family immigrated to the United States. Asch earned his bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York in 1928. He continued his studies at Columbia University, where he earned both his master’s degree and his PhD. While there, Asch was mentored by Max Wertheimer. This influence significantly impacted Asch’s views on gestalt approaches to thinking, association, and perception.

Professional Life

Asch began his professional career at Swarthmore College, where he was a professor of psychology for nineteen years. While there, he worked with several colleagues, including Wolfgang Kohler, to further explore the theories that perplexed him. He later received the distinguished title of Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Contribution to Psychology

Asch became widely recognized for his theories on social psychology during the 1950s. Several of his groundbreaking and often controversial ideas impacted psychology permanently. In particular, his experiments and subsequent theories relating to impression formation, conformity, and prestige suggestion had a profound influence on the field of social psychology.

He was especially curious about how people form perceptions of others. He conducted experiments asking participants to form impressions of hypothetical people based upon information provided by researchers. He argued that impression formation follows an organized process and that a person's characteristics are perceived relative to their other characteristics. For example, a woman who loves both shopping and math might be perceived differently from one who loves shopping and watching television. Asch emphasized that people form impressions by determining the central qualities of a person and that people draw distinctions between central qualities and less significant ones.

His studies on conformity are his most validated and recognized achievements. These studies were known as the Asch Paradigms. By providing his test subjects with the opinions of others regarding concrete stimuli—varying line lengths on paper—the subjects were then asked to form their own opinions. Interestingly, during these experiments, most of the test subjects were unable to refrain from conforming to the consensus of others, even though the answer was blatantly incorrect. These experiments emphasized the significance of conformity in social settings, and provided a springboard for years of similar research. Asch’s research directly influenced many experts in the field, including Stanley Milgram. Milgram's study of obedience is one of the best-known in psychology; it demonstrates that people will obey an authority figure even when doing so requires them to harm another. This study was directly inspired by Asch, who supervised Milgram's PhD at Harvard University.

Asch also discovered the power of prestige suggestion. He found that people were more likely to conform and to believe in a message when the person delivering it had high prestige. This research helps to explain why propaganda can be so effective. Asch's research into conformity directly contradicts social comparison theory, which emphasizes that people turn to concrete evidence first, and when none is available, they then refer to others' opinions. In contrast, Asch's research demonstrated that people will often completely ignore concrete evidence in favor of conforming with popular opinion. 

Asch’s exposition of his theories in his textbook Social Psychology (1952) is among his greatest achievements—his chief experiments are outlined, and his views on the integration of social and natural sciences are detailed. Asch steers clear of embracing any one particular form of psychology; instead, he chooses to view the human being as intricately complicated and comprehensible at the same time. This hallmark of his success has been an influence on social psychology since its publication and continues to generate discussion and research on the subject of conformity.

Criticism of Asch's Work

Some researchers have argued that Asch's conformity experiments aren't as clear-cut as they seem. For example, John Turner points out that research subjects expressed that they were uncertain of their own judgments during the study, indicating that they might have turned to others because they were unsure of the correct answer—a result that social comparison theory would predict.