Group Dynamics and the Public Sphere

Group Dynamics

What are some important experiments that have shown people’s tendency to conform to group norms?

Two classic social psychology experiments illustrate the power of group norms. In a pioneering experiment by Muzafer Sherif in 1936, people were exposed to an optical illusion called the autokinetic effect. If you shine a pinprick of light in a completely dark room, the dot of light will appear to move. Sherif asked his subjects to estimate how much the light moved. He first tested people alone and then in groups of two or three. He found that when tested alone, individuals gave very different estimates of the light’s movement. In groups, however, people’s estimates tended to converge to the same answer. A group norm was formed that shaped people’s perception.

In 1956, Solomon Asch published results of another classic experiment. Subjects were recruited to take part in an experiment of visual judgment. They were placed in small groups and shown pictures of several lines. The groups were asked to match a target line with one of three comparison lines. In fact, only one member of the group was an actual subject. The others were part of the experiment, with instructions to unanimously state the wrong answer two-thirds of the time. The real point of the study was to see whether the true study subjects, the “naive” subjects, would answer correctly when their group members gave the wrong answer or whether they would conform to the group norm and agree to the wrong answer. In fact, the naive participants did conform to the wrong answer (either fully or in part) 36 percent of the time. This study was important because it showed that people will alter their response according to group norms even when it is clear that the group is objectively wrong.


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