Comprehending conformity

The Discovery Channel’s Head Games had an episode on “Conformity,” with weird instances of people’s conforming to rules and social pressure. For instance, a sign was placed in a museum instructing people to walk on an arbitrary line, and everyone shown did, even following it in a loop. I suspect they edited out anything that didn’t fit the script. Didn’t anyone ask questions? Did the people ever stop walking in a loop, or are they still there today?

Still, it’s undeniable that most people are heavily conformist. As the narrator points out, for most of human existence being cast out of the group was a death sentence. Today we have more options, but evolutionary pressures don’t go away quickly.

I thought about how that characterization applies to me. There’s little question that I’m an outlier. If everyone else in an audience rises to give a standing ovation, I only join them if I think the performance was worth it — and if I do, I’m one of the first ones up. It looks strange to me when others rise a few at a time, as if they’re belatedly realizing it was an extraordinary performance. If everybody’s singing a song because it’s popular and there’s a tradition of joining in, and I know the song well but don’t like it, I won’t sing, even though I like singing along in general. (I’m thinking especially of “Stars in Their Eyes.”) If MBTA snoops are checking personal items at a subway entrance, I’ll turn around and leave while everyone else is passively accepting the intrusion. It’s a short walk to the next stop.

But I’m not a complete non-conformist. My appearance is ordinary, I use grammatical English, and I write with the lines on ruled paper. There’s a difference between group conformity and rule conformity, and between blindly conforming to out-of-context rules and adhering to principles. If group conformity can be measured on a scale, I’m probably in the bottom percentile; but if a set of principles makes sense to me, I’ll apply it and stick with it. I’m not claiming to be immune to manipulation, but crowd pressure isn’t the way to do it.

It’s sometimes difficult for me to understand the conformist mindset. When lots of people agree to some piece of nonsense, I start wondering what bizarre premise and twisted reasoning led them there. Actually it’s often no reasoning at all, and no premise except acceptance of what the group accepts.

Conformists seem to have just as much trouble understanding independent thought. They try to put any position they hear into some familiar category, so it’s just conformity to a different group. Doing this makes disagreements degenerate into conflicts between groups and local customs escalate into competing collectivist political doctrines. It’s hard for a really new way of thinking to get heard and understood. Still, someone who holds new and independent ideas can seriously shake conformist foundations. When everyone’s expected to align with some group dogma, a position that doesn’t is disturbing and can lead to a shift in the paradigm.

It’s not so bad living outside the herd.


One Response to “Comprehending conformity”

  1. Eyal Mozes Says:

    > It looks strange to me when others rise a few at a time, as if they’re belatedly realizing it was an extraordinary performance.

    I thought about this comment at Concertino; I saw several times in which people got up a few at a time, and I myself was one of the late risers.

    At least on my part, if I am one of the few people in the audience standing up, then the message I am expressing is that I think this was an extraordinary performance. On the other hand, if most of the audience is standing up and I am one of the few remaining seated, then I feel that the message I am expressing is that I think this wasn’t a particularly good performance. In both cases this is what I will do if that’s really what I think.

    But there are times that I feel a performance was very good, but not truly extraordinary. In such cases I don’t want to express either of the above two messages. So I will not be one of the first ones up; but if many in the audience stand up, I will join them.

    I think there are many people who behave this way for this reason. Joining the rest of the audience in giving a standing ovation can be motivated by a desire to conform, but that is not necessarily the reason.

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