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Solomon Elliott Asch was a Polish-born American psychologist noted for his dedication to psychology as a natural science, his talent for designing arresting experiments, and a humanism that embraced cultural knowledge and sensitivity. For Asch, behaviorists and Freudians were alike in their reductionism. Asch aimed instead to represent the breadth and depth of Homo sapiens in a Gestalt psychology that focused on context and relationships.
Asch was born in Warsaw in 1907 and moved to the United States as a teenager. At City College of New York he majored in both literature and science. While completing his graduate studies in psychology at Columbia University, he took an interest in anthropology and attended seminars with Ruth Benedict (1887–1948) and Franz Boas (1858–1942). In 1930 Asch married Florence Miller and took her with him on a summer fellowship to study Hopi children and their culture in Arizona. Although these experiences laid the foundation for Asch’s humanist interests, his graduate work was more conventional. Henry E. Garrett (1894–1973) supervised his Ph.D. research and, in the custom of the day, gave Asch his thesis problem: to find out whether all learning curves had the same form.
After completing his doctorate in 1932, Asch became a faculty member at Brooklyn College. Soon after taking up this position, he met Max Wertheimer (1880–1943), a Gestalt psychologist who became the major intellectual influence in Asch’s life. When Wertheimer died in 1943, Asch succeeded him as chairman of psychology at the New School for Social Research.
Asch moved to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1947 and spent twenty productive years there. At Swarthmore, Asch was in daily contact with two of the brightest stars of Gestalt psychology: Wolfgang Kohler (1887–1967) and Hans Wallach (1904–1998). It was in this environment that Asch developed his classic studies of social psychology: “Forming Impressions of Personality” (1946); “The Doctrine of Suggestion, Prestige, and Imitation in Social Psychology” (1948); and “Studies of Independence and Conformity: I. A Minority of One against a Unanimous Majority” (1956). Each of the three investigations joins an elegantly simple method with a question of surprising depth, and each poses a striking conflict.
For personality impressions, the conflict is between positive and negative traits in descriptions of a single person. Perhaps the most important result is that students given inconsistent information (that a person is both cold and friendly) have no difficulty producing a unified impression (friendly manner, cold eyes). One can imagine a world in which students complain that they can do no more than repeat back the trait list—how can they say more? Creativity in integrating information about others is so natural that it takes an experiment to make us wonder at our capacity.
For prestige suggestion, the conflict is between evaluation of a quotation (“a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms are in the physical”) and evaluation of the source to which the quotation is attributed (Thomas Jefferson or Vladimir Lenin). Others had found that agreement with an argument was higher when the source held a higher status. These studies had concluded that humans are irrational in attending to the source associated with an argument. Asch showed that the perceived meaning of the quotation is different, depending on the source: Jefferson’s rebellion is reform; Lenin’s is blood in the street. The difference in agreement comes not from blind associations but from creative interpretation of the combination of statement and source information. (Asch’s irony was that the quotation came, in fact, from Jefferson, and, in context, Jefferson meant blood in the streets.)
For conformity research, the conflict is between social and sensory information, as a phony majority contradicts visual reality about the length of a line. In the standard situation, the real subject has to render a judgment after six “fellow students” give the same obviously wrong answer. These conformity test trials are interspersed among numerous trials in which all give the correct judgment. Overall, subjects remain independent on two-thirds of the test trials, but three-quarters of subjects conform to the majority on at least one test trial. Many have understood this result as indicating human weakness in the face of social pressure. Asch emphasized instead that independence was twice as likely as conformity and noted that social life requires sensitivity to the opinions of others.
These experiments are revealing because, in all of them, conflicting inputs elicit the human capacity for creative integration of these inputs. During the decades in which psychology was dominated by stimulus-response psychology and behaviorism, Asch was an inspiration for those who could still see the complexity of human perception and the richness of human culture. Asch’s 1952 textbook, Social Psychology, conveyed his experimental humanism to generations of undergraduate students and remains worth reading today.
- Asch, Solomon E. 1946. Forming Impressions of Personality. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 41: 258–290.
- Asch, Solomon E. 1948. The Doctrine of Suggestion, Prestige, and Imitation in Social Psychology. Psychological Review 55: 250–276.
- Asch, Solomon E. 1952. Social Psychology. New York: PrenticeHall. Reprint. 1987. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Asch, Solomon E. 1956. Studies of Independence and Conformity: I. A Minority of One against a Unanimous Majority. Psychological Monographs 70: 1–70.
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