Asch, Solomon


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Solomon Asch (1907-1996) was a Polish-born American social psychologist, best known for his contributions to Gestalt social psychology and famous for his conformity experiments. Asch migrated with his family to the Unites States at the age of 13. He studied at Columbia University where, following completion of his studies, he worked closely with Max Wertheimer. He was at Swarthmore College for 19 years where he worked alongside Wolfgang Kohler. Asch supervised Stanley Milgram’s doctoral dissertation on nationality and conformity whilst serving as visiting lecturer at Harvard. He ended his career at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was Emeritus professor until his death in 1996. In 1992, Swarthmore College established the Solomon Asch award in his honour, recognizing outstanding independent work in psychology at Swarthmore.
Asch is best known for his conformity experiments, also known as the line experiments. In these experiments, subjects were presented with a series of three lines on a card and another line on a separate card that corresponded to one of the three lines on the original card. Subjects were told that the experiment was on visual perception, and they were required to identify which line out of the three matched the single line. Subjects in the experiment sat amongst a group of confederates who were instructed to give wrong answers on various trials. Contrary to expectations, Asch found that experimental subjects gave wrong responses on numerous trials, yielding to social influence exercised by the group. His interpretation of the findings as majority influence stimulated Moscovici’s revision of the experiment to investigate minority influence. Milgram’s obedience experiments were also directly influenced by Asch’s conformity experiments.
Aside from the conformity studies, Asch also investigated impression formation and the doctrine of suggestion. In the former, he presented experimental subjects with a series of trait descriptors of a person with a variation on one trait between two groups. One group was presented with the trait ‘warm’ whereas the other was presented with the trait ‘cold’. Subjects were asked to write a brief description of the person following the presentation of traits. Asch found that different impressions were formed on the basis of this variation. The meaning of some other characteristics seemed to change between group conditions as a result of variation in certain central traits. His work on the doctrine of suggestion investigated the phenomenon of propaganda. Asch presented experimental subjects with a message attributed to different authors for different group conditions. He found that subjects’ agreement with the content of the message depended on the perceived source.
Asch’s various studies were inspired by a Gestaltist orientation. His views are presented in his (1952) classic textbook Social Psychology. In this volume, Asch critiques the behaviourist view and its extension to social cognition, arguing instead for a situationally and contextually contingent explanation of psychological phenomena.

Written by Gordon Sammut