Solomon Eliot Asch (1907-1996) was one of the first psychologists to explore the topics of social psychology and Gestalt psychology. Many social psychology researchers have been inspired by Asch's work. His publications include Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment (1951), Opinions and social pressure (1955) and Studies of independence and conformity: A minority of one against a unanimous majority from 1956 and Social psychology, which was published in 1987.
Asch was born in Warsaw on September 14, 1907. At the age of 13 years he went to the United States to make a new life. In 1932, Asch became a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) at Columbia University. Max Wertheimer was Asch's mentor in the United States. He was a major influence on the young psychologist's study of relation-oriented approaches to perception, association, learning, thinking and metaphor.
In the early years of World War II as a professor at Brooklyn College's psychology department, Asch focused his studies on the impact of propaganda and indoctrination. His career also includes 19 years spent at Swarthmore College, where he collaborated with renowned Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler. In the 1950s, Asch became famous for a series of experiments known as the Asch conformity experiments, which examined the effects of social pressure on conformity.
Asch was associate editor of Psychological Review between 1957 and 1962. In 1965, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Between 1966 and 1972, Asch was director and distinguished professor of psychology at the Institute for Cognitive Studies at Rutgers University. He died in Haverford, Pennsylvania on February 20, 1996.
Social psychology uses scientific methods to explain how feelings, behavior and thoughts are impacted by the presence of other human beings. It examines a variety of social topics such as group behavior, social perception, leadership, conformity, aggression and prejudice. This field of psychology focuses on social perception and social interaction as vital elements for the understanding of social behavior.
In his studies Asch describes the individual as complex but comprehensible, both socially situated and independent. He manages to keep the balance between behaviorism and psychoanalysis, nature and nurture, elementism and holism, experimentation and naturalistic observation. Asch was also a pioneer of Gestalt psychology, a school of thought that explores the human mind and behavior as a whole.
German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach (1838-1916) and German poet, playwright, novelist and natural philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) had significant influences on the development of social psychology. Czech-born psychologist Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), one of the founders of Gestalt psychology, gives the following description: "There are wholes, the behaviour of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole. It is the hope of Gestalt theory to determine the nature of such wholes."
Through his work, Asch established the view of contemporary social psychology that behavior is not a response to the world as it is, but to the world as perceived. In one of his conformity experiments he studied the way social students responded to quotations such as "I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms are in the physical." Asch found that students in the United States agreed more with that statement when it was attributed to US president Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) than when attributed to Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924). Asch proved that the meaning of the quotation was impacted by the attribution. Jefferson talked about politics, while Lenin meant blood.
Asch also examined the difference between physical and social reality through another one of his experiments. His subjects had to judge lines with different lengths or width and other unambiguous objects, after they had heard opinions that provided clearly incorrect estimates. The result was that only 29 percent of Asch's subjects refused to conform with the majority. Through that experiment, the psychologist examined the social construction of reality and opened the door to many years of ongoing research on conformity. One of Asch's studies served as inspiration to US social psychologist Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) for his work on obedience to authority.