Solomon E. Asch 1907 - 1996
Solomon E. Asch was a pioneer of social psychology. Born in Warsaw, Poland, on September 14, 1907, he came to the United States in 1920 and received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1932. His mentor there, Max Wertheimer, was an important early influence as Asch explored gestalt, relation-oriented approaches to perception, association, learning, thinking, and metaphor. His principal faculty appointment was at Swarthmore College, where he spent 19 years working with a group of psychologists that included Wolfgang Kohler.
The great challenge for social psychology is to join the rarefied rigor of physical science with the rich complexity of human life. Asch pointed the way to a balanced and productive blend of natural and social science, an approach that produced three pioneering and highly influential experiments and a classic textbook, Social Psychology.
In studying what became known as prestige suggestion, Asch manipulated the attribution of quotations like "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." American students agreed more with this quotation when it was attributed to Jefferson than when it was attributed to Lenin. Behaviorists interpreted this result in terms of simple associations, but Asch showed that the attribution affected the meaning of the quotation: Lenin meant blood whereas Jefferson meant politics. Hence, Asch helped establish the dominant view of contemporary social psychology: behavior is not a response to the world as it is, but to the world as perceived.
Asch's approach put him at odds with the “behaviorist elementism” dominant in the 1940s and 1950s. In his experiments on impression formation, Asch showed that the meaning of a personality trait depended upon other traits attributed to the same person. For example, the intelligence of a person who is "intelligent" and "cold" is not the same as the intelligence of a person who is "intelligent" and “warm”. Though controversial (especially among advocates of elementist models), the importance of his results is uncontested. The network of inferences from one characteristic to another is being studied still; Asch's technique of comparing impressions generated by descriptions differing in only one characteristic is still popular.
Asch's most famous experiments set a contest between physical and social reality. His subjects judged unambiguous stimuli – lines of different lengths – after hearing other opinions offering incorrect estimates. Subjects were very upset by the discrepancy between their perceptions and those of others and most caved under the pressure to conform: only 29% of his subjects refused to join the bogus majority. This technique was a powerful lens for examining the social construction of reality, and gave rise to decades of research on conformity. Stanley Milgram's studies of obedience to authority were inspired directly by Asch's studies.
SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY (1952)
Asch's classic textbook is an eloquent statement of his vision and ranks among the greatest works in psychology. He persuasively presents the person as complex but comprehensible, both socially situated and independent. Asch walks the difficult but productive middle ground between behaviorism and psychoanalysis, nature and nurture, elementism and holism, experimentation and naturalistic observation. This book shaped a generation of social psychologists. (The current generation may find it a useful antidote to ANOVA-ridden journals.) While crises in social psychology come and go, this text remains a sovereign remedy. Some examples:
On method: "If there must be principles of scientific method, then surely the first to claim our attention is that one should describe phenomena faithfully and allow them to guide the choice of problems and procedures."
On scale: "We must see group phenomena as both the product and condition of actions of individuals."
On culture: "Most social acts have to be understood in their setting, and lose meaning if isolated. No error in thinking about social facts is more serious than the failure to see their place and function."
On complexity: “We cannot be true to a fragment of man if we are not true, in at least a rudimentary way, to man himself."
Solomon E. Asch died at the age of 88 on February 20, 1996.