In this article, we examine the interpretations by social psychologists of Asch's widely cited study of independence and conformity. Though it has become known as the ‘Asch Conformity Study’, Asch equally, if not more, intended and interpreted it as demonstrating the powers of independence.
The evidence for this analysis consists of 99 accounts in social psychology textbooks published between 1953, following the appearance of his study, and 1984. We asked whether these accounts were accurate, or whether, as we suspected, they minimized the role of independence and exaggerated that of conformity. We found that authors have often distorted Asch's findings, and that this trend has increased substantially with time: they have increasingly accentuated the role of conformity and underestimated that of independence.
We suggest several reasons for this distortion. For one, there has been insufficient care in reading the findings and drawing conclusions. Second, authors have generally limited themselves to reports of quantitative results. Although these were strong and beyond question, authors have usually neglected the intimately connected qualitative findings, which would have discouraged the misinterpretations. Third, the study of Asch was an integral part of his perspective on social psychology, which authors again ignored, thus encouraging a limited and out-of-context view of his study. We conclude with a thematic presentation of Asch's general theoretical framework, showing how it bears on independence and conformity.