<< From the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict University of Pennsylvania >> Solomon E. Asch was born in Warsaw, Poland, on September 14, 1907; he died at the age of 88 on February 20, 1996. Asch came to the United States in 1920, and received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1932. His principal mentor was Max Wertheimer, and, throughout his life, he explored gestalt, relation-oriented approaches to perception, association, learning, thinking, and metaphor. His principal faculty appointment was 19 years at Swarthmore College, where he was a part of a group of Gestalt psychologists that included Wolfgang Kohler. The great challenge for social psychology has been to create a felicitous joining of the rigor of natural science with the rich complexity of human social life. More than any other person, Solomon Asch showed the way to this balanced and productive blend of natural and social science; his approach is exemplified in three ground breaking and highly influential experiments and is made explicit in his classic textbook. In studying 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. Here Asch raised the cognitive faith that today dominates social psychology: behavior is not a response to the world as it is but to the world as perceived. Asch's Gestalt approach put him at odds with the behaviorist elementism dominant in the 1940s and 50s. In his experiments on impression formation, Asch aimed to show that the meaning of a personality trait depended upon the structure and context of other traits attributed to the same person. For example, the intelligence of a person "intelligent" and "cold" is not the same as the intelligence of a person who is "warm" and "intelligent". Although controversy developed over whether his results could be explained with elementist models, there is no controversy about the importance of his results. The network of inferences from one characteristic to another is still being studied; Asch's technique of comparing impressions generated by descriptions differing in only one characteristic is still popular. Asch's most famous experiments raised a contest between physical and social reality. He had subjects judge unambiguous stimuli (lines of different lengths) after hearing a number of "other subjects" give an incorrect judgment. Subjects were very upset by the discrepancy between their perceptions and those of others; only 29% of subjects never yielded to 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 and by the postdoctoral year Milgram spent with Asch. Asch's classic textbook, Social Psychology (1952), offers an eloquent statement of his vision and ranks among the great books in psychology. He persuasively presents the human person as complex but researchable, both socially situated and independent; he walks the difficult but productive middle ground between behaviorism and psychoanalysis, nature and nurture, elementism and holism, experiment and naturalistic observation. This book shaped a generation of social psychologists, and the current generation may find it a useful antidote to ANOVA-ridden journals. Here is 1952 Asch for social psychology in the new millennium. On substance: "Psychology must center on great and permanent problems, and psychologists should avoid the undignified posture of those whom in another connection Santayana has described as redoubling their effort when they have forgotten their aim" (p.31). 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" (p. xv). On level of analysis: "We must see group phenomena as both the product and condition of actions of individuals" (p. 251). 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" (p. 61). On studying an organism capable of religion, philosophy, and the arts: "We cannot be true to a fragment of man if we are not true, in at least a rudimentary way, to man himself."(p.368).
Death of Solomon Asch
Almanac, March 5, 1996; Volume 42 Number 23
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