Social Influence Coursework

An investigation into the effect of ambiguity on conformity


The experiment was carried out to test the hypothesis that ambiguity in tasks increases the rate of conformity. The Asch study (1951) was replicated using twelve tasks of varying ambiguity. Four out of twelve of these trials were critical trials, the rest being neutral. There were six confederates and one naïve participant completing each task. Ambiguity was found to be related to conformity rate but the connection is not concrete.


Conformity is often briefly referred to as ‘yielding to group pressure, real or imagined’. It is a social influence which can be very hard to measure, due to the huge difference very small factors can make. Sherif (1935) performed one of the first major investigations into conformity. He used a visual illusion known as the autokinetic effect as a task, in which his participants were required to estimate how far the spot of light had moved. Sherif found that when asked to estimate alone and then within a group, the estimates converged, developing a group norm, as shown below.

Asch (1951) conducted the most renowned experiment into conformity. He chose to investigate whether people agree with a group who unanimously give an incorrect answer to an obvious task. He asked participants to identify two lines of the same length from cards like the examples below.

Asch found that a conformity rate of 32% was evident, although a pilot study had previously proved the ease of the task. As van Avermaet (1996) said, “the results reveal the tremendous impact an ‘obviously’ incorrect but unanimous majority on the judgements of a lone individual.”

Asch had chosen to perform this experiment as he believed Sherif’s task was ambiguous and therefore was difficult to conclude. Therefore, this experiment intends to investigate the effect of ambiguity on conformity rates by replicating Asch’s study with a varying degree of ambiguous and unambiguous versions of the task. The hypothesis is that conformity rates will be greater with the more ambiguous tasks.



The basic design of the original Asch experiment was followed to allow for comparison, including the same number of participants and the seating arrangements. This eliminated differences in performance due to visual differences and group size effects. The independent variable in this experiment was the ambiguity of the task. The dependent variable was the conformity or lack of conformity among the naïve participants. The experiment used a selection of lined cards similar to those used in the original version of the experiment. There were unluckily a number of confounding variables such as outside noise and human error which could not be controlled, but were minimised by finding a quiet room in which to conduct the experiment.


The participants were seven female students and two male students. Four female and two male students out of the above became confederates. The other three were naïve participants. Each naïve participant had no knowledge of who else was taking part prior to the experiment.


The sheets used in the experiment can be found in Appendix C. The sheets were all halved into A5 size sheets, each with a standard line and three comparison lines.


The answers of all participants were recorded in tables by the experimenter, hence all apparatus needed was a pen and paper. Participants were not allowed any measuring equipment or to measure the lines in any way. A timer was used to time two minutes for discussion within the group.


Participants were briefed individually, beginning with the confederates. Each confederate was told to identify incorrect lines as correct on tasks 2, 5, 8 and 11 (See Appendix A). They were then requested to take a seat at a square table anywhere except the sixth seat clockwise from the experimenter’s seat, as shown in the diagram below. The naïve participant was the last to be briefed. She was given full instructions (Appendix A) and then asked to take a seat in any remaining spot, obviously the sixth seat being the only left. This would ensure she received the full effect of group pressure but would not be left until last, thus suggesting that she was “different”. This is also the same seating as was used in the original Asch experiment. Participants were then joined by the experimenter, who handed out the first task. Two minutes were timed