Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Two Conformities

Generally speaking, conformity is better than deformity.

That’s why people who prize their independence consider themselves to be non-conformists. It’s a lot better than declaring yourself to be  deformed.

At the least, there are two ways to conform, outer- and inner-directed.

By outer-directed conformity, I mean our tendency to follow dress codes, table manners, etiquette, decorum, and propriety.

Good behavior involves conforming to social norms and customs. The more you conform the more you feel like you belong to the group. The more you conform the more your interactions with other members of the group will be harmonious.

Conformity lubricates social intercourse. It is the foundation for cooperative enterprise.

As with any virtue, too much conformity is as bad as too little. When the crowd has been whipped into a frenzy, consumed by an irrational emotion, it is not good to conform.

Many people are telling you that you should not conform to society’s imperious demands.

True enough a few people can function in society while ignoring societal norms.

Regardless of how creative you are, it is nearly always better to do as others do, especially when it comes to behavior that is on public display.

We know-- because Confucius told us-- that group cohesion requires ritual and ceremony. It also requires conformity. If people did not conform to social customs, no one would ever know who was a friend and who was an enemy.

In my view, outer-directed conformity is more important than its inner-directed reflection, mostly because it is clear to any objective observer. You can fake sympathy or belief; you cannot fake good table manners or proper attire.

Inner conformity, that is,  conformity of thought and feeling, is not as solid a social foundation. Once we start making reference to private thoughts and feelings, you are relying on subjective impressions and guesswork.

Perhaps this is why mental conformity, groupthink, is such a difficult issue.

Take the most famous philosophical attempt to promote groupthink, Jean Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the general will.

Rousseau conceived of a state where a wise and benevolent leader would know and express what people really thought and felt, even if they do not know it themselves.

As you know, this is a formula for tyranny. It is the reason why the worst tyrannies pretend to express the will of the people and why they say that theirs are democratic governments.

More immediately, we all tend to align our thoughts and feelings with those of our friends and neighbors because we seem to want to live in spiritual harmony.

And we also try to avoid conflict.

Most issues are not really worth arguing about. When you have to choose between social harmony, on the one hand, and a disruptive fight over whether the Packers deserved to win the Super Bowl, most people, unless they have a strong vested interest in the question, are likely to go along in order to get along.

Often enough, we form opinions that are consonant with those of important figures. If we need to make up our minds about a matter on which we are not very well informed, we are likely to take on the opinions of the person with the strongest convictions.

Lecturers, and certainly politicians, know that if they sound completely sure of themselves, they are likely to gain more adherents than if they sound uncertain and hesitant.

It would seem that the person with the strongest conviction is least likely to compromise and more likely to fight anyone who disputes his opinion.

We also tend to agree with the person who has the most impressive credentials. If we do, we might be wrong, but we will be in good company, and besides, no one is going to say that we are stupid.

Yesterday, Jonah Lehrer explored another angle on the question of conformity: if everyone believes something, is it more or less likely to be true? Link here.

Research has shown that if you ask individuals separately to guess the number of jelly beans there are in a jar, they will do a fairly good job. When they are informed of other people’s opinions, they tend to get carried away by the need to conform.

Beyond showing that we are subject to the crowd’s influence, this also reflects the way the human mind works when nothing of importance is at stake,. At that point,  we place more value on thinking like others.

But, what happens when something important is at stake? Can we, for example, trust the judgment delivered by the markets.

In principle, the market knows more than any of us knows individually. But, the markets do not present us with a view of the general will. They show us the opinions of participants. In this sense they are not democratic.

Of course, the market may well get consumed by the madness of crowds. There are market bubbles and market manias. In fairness, the market always corrects its own excesses, and does not really care who gets hurt in the process.

When the crowd goes mad, when it is whipped into a frenzy, conformity reaches an extreme. You might call it the triumph of emotion over reason.

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