Non-Conformists Conform

Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t need to follow me, you don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!
The Crowd (in unison): Yes! We’re all individuals!
Brian:  You’re all different!
The Crowd (in unison): Yes, we are all different!
Man in Crowd: I’m not.           (The Life of Brian)

People care what others think about them. In fact they usually care a lot, more than they care to admit. Since caring less is considered admirable in our society, people often say and signal that they care less than others care. But I think it is misleading to talk in terms of conformists, who care lots what others think, versus individualists, who care less.

It sees to me that while people do vary in conformity, this variation is less in how much folks care about others’ evaluations, and more about which others they care about. “Conformists” tend to care about a common standard status audience – a usual mix of people weighted by a standard status. “Non-conformists,” in contrast, “march to the beat of a different drummer” by caring about non-standard status audiences.

For example, as an adolescent I seem to have deeply internalized the idea of great scientists/visionaries as heroes. I long judged my efforts by their standards – what would increase the chance that I would become such a person, or be approved by one. Marching to the beat of this unusual status audience drummer often led me to “non-conform” by doing things that less impressed folks around me. But I very definitely wanted to impress someone.

This seems to be the case with most interesting “non-conformists” I know.   They are human, and surely care deeply about the opinions of others. But their special care for the opinions of particular others often leads them to disapproval by ordinary others. Sometimes you can’t please everyone, and must choose whom to please. It seems to me that the main difference between folks is that “non-conformists” try to please less standard audiences.  Viva la difference.

GD Star Rating
a WordPress rating system
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • michael vassar

    That seems right. The other thing that I think is worth noting though is that there seems to be a difference between a guilt and a shame focus, or between face and honor. Some people care more about pleasing others, others more about ‘would-have-pleased’ others if the others know more, and still others about ‘would-have-pleased’ others if the others were different in some respect other than knowing more, say being more reflective, more intelligent, less biased in some manner or the like.

    As a practical matter, most of the people who are widely admired especially in retrospect seem to be of the middle category.

    • Philo

      @ Michael Vassar

      “Some people care more about pleasing others, others more about ‘would-have-pleased’ others if the others kn[e]w more, and still others about ‘would-have-pleased’ others if the others were different in some respect other than knowing more, say being more reflective, more intelligent, less biased in some manner or the like [in short, more rational].” My first reaction is that there is a vast difference between people of the first sort and the others: the former are trying to *please actual people* while the latter are trying to *live up to some abstract principle*. (However, people of the latter sort may try to enlist the natural human inclination to please others in aid of their effort to conform to some principle by *personalizing* the principle; for example, they may conceive of their ideal as a person, such as Jesus, and think of themselves as *trying to please Jesus*. But they are really being guided by an abstract principle.)

      My second reaction is that a person who seems to be of the first sort may rationalize his conduct by saying that he is taking it for granted that ordinary people’s judgments are *correct*: that they understand and correctly apply the true principle of right conduct; so if ordinary people disapprove of what he is doing, he is probably doing wrong. Then he, too, is trying to live up to some principle, only he is relying on others to help him judge how to apply it. And while this might sometimes be a mere rationalization, in at least some cases it seems quite plausible, suggesting that Robin’s apparent contempt for apparently “other-directed” people may be overdone.

      • michael vassar

        I mostly agree with the above, but it’s also plausible that a person could be of the first sort and become a person of the second sort for unprincipled game-theoretical reasons. For instance, because he believes that people will like him more if he seems to be a person of the second sort and that its easier to change than to fake it with astute and high value people. If so, he should become a person of the second sort. A person of the third sort might follow the same logic plus the logic of taking ordinary people’s judgments as, if not correct, at least highly informative. That would move him far towards being a person of the second sort as well. As a practical matter, I’d consider that characterization to describe myself.

  • cournot

    Civilization is all about deciding which standards and groups should be conformed to and squelching those who deviate too strongly. Long live homogeneity!

  • Eric Falkenstein

    That reminds me of the old parental saying: “what do you care what other people think?” They thought this was profound, that peers were irrelevant. It merely highlighted to me, and most kids who hear this, that many parents just don’t get it. While nonconformists may not want to be most popular, everyone wants to be liked by their peers.

  • http://www.strangedoctrines.com Michael Drake

    “Now let’s repeat the Nonconformist’s Oath…”

  • http://entmod.blogspot.com Doc Merlin

    Partially right, but then how do you explain libertarians’ tendency towards metaphorical fratricide and factionalism?

    • michael vassar

      Very good point.

    • fburnaby

      What would impress a libertarian more than someone who refuses to conform to their standards?

      This goes the same for many self-identified skeptical people, I would suspect. Eliezer Yudkowski makes a good list of groups who value people who signal their nonconformism in “Why our kind can’t cooperate”: atheists, libertarians, technophiles, nerds, science-fiction fans, scientists, or even non-fundamentalist religions.

      • fburnaby

        Also, an even better example of this would be the black metal music subculture. If a black metal band has more than 10~20 fans, they’re considered a failure. They strive to do a poor job recording their albums and abuse their fans, accusing them of being sheep for wanting to listen to their music.

        They all explicitly share the value of nonconformism. Yet they’re still all fans of each-other’s music, or at least listen to it.

  • http://econfaculty.gmu.edu/klein/index.html Daniel Klein

    Nice.

    The opener reminds me of LA Rolliins:

    The Libertarian Movement: A herd of individualists stampeding toward freedom.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      That definition is contained in a new edition of The Myth of Natural Rights + Lucifer’s Lexicon, featuring a preface by yours truly.

  • http://un-thought.blogspot.com/ Floccina

    I find it very interesting that hippies, goths, bikers and punks seem to each wear a uniform. In the case of punks they reduce their symmetry making themselves less attractive and negative externality. Those groups seem about as strict in their dress as Mennonites yet they think of themselves as non conformists because they differ from everyone else.

    • andrew kieran

      but, as i’ve found, if you go to a punk gig in a suit everyone thinks you’re the dog’s bollocks (ie. utterly brilliant). try going to a straight gig in punk attire and you can reasonably expect to be assaulted.

      • Matt

        mmmm, I think this would only hold true until suits (or whatever comparatively trivial cost and group commitment free clothing option) reached some frequency, at which point they would cease to be seen as a bold ideologue’s anti-conformity statement and instead be seen as an unimaginative and lazy get out.

      • andrew kieran

        indeed true. the funny thing is i only dress smart at punk gigs because i can’t afford to have a whole set of clothes to wear only once every few months.

        i’d dress scruffy all the time if i could get away with it, but due to my need to fit in with mainstream society so i can hold onto my job and appear respectable at all times for the sake of getting a better one i dress at least smart-casual all the time.

        this thread interests me particularly, i was a member of the anti-roads movement for many years and avoided voicing my concerns over the reactive and counter-productive nature of most of the activities of the group due to my need to keep in with the group as it was my primary source of friendship, housing and food. even though today i’m walking the straight path and going to college to try and get a decent career, many of my friends remain in the movement repeating the same damn mistakes time and time again, wasting vast amounts of time and energy for the sake of being seen to oppose something, and to be part of a group. and i hold my tongue, because i don’t like to piss on anyone’s bonfire.

        Nowadays i have to hold my tongue over other things, things that piss me off at college for instance, because i don’t want to rile the faculty in my first year.

        i think people conform because they feel they need to. people can get away with being bold and non-conformist because there’s thousands out there like them doing it in the same manner, who provide a social network that can provide them with work and housing and social contact

  • D
  • Joe

    Of course there’s a strong sampling bias here, since the *real* individualists are unlikely to attract much notice, unless they’re the sort who walk around without pants. In rich countries, a smart person who doesn’t care about status or approval can easily lead a very comfortable and fun life.

    • James D. Miller

      Joe you are right, a true nonconformist would just conform enough so people leave him alone.

  • Chris T

    Trivia on the man in the crowd: His statement was not part of the script and was randomly said by one of the extras.

  • noematic

    People are often offended by the very notion that they are seeking anybody’s approval. Also, it seems that ‘conformists’ often try to fake non-conformity in small ways, for example, a declared preference for an unusual beverage, obscure band or quirky clothing.

    The ‘from whom do you seek approval and why’ conversation is an intrinsically interesting one but a hard one to have because it requires an implicit admission that we are all after someone’s validation. To what extent do you think people are able to think about this question critically and respond truthfully? Is this something that can only really be revealed by what we actually work towards?

  • Drewfus

    Perhaps another case to consider is non-conformists attempting to raise or lower the status of certain groups, in stark contrast to the groups existing standing in society.

    Ayn Rand and her followers were like that – they tried to greatly raise the status of businessmen, and lower the status of governments, at a time when it was quite popular to denigrate the former and sing the praises of the latter.

    This attempt by relatively low status social members to alter the status of important social elements did not go down well, at least at the time.

    Fairly obviously, accepting the existing status heirarchy is important for social cohesion and for one’s own status/acceptance by society. Of course, it is within the individuals rights in modern society to ignore all this.

    • Drewfus

      General Stanley McChrystal comments in Rolling Stone magazine are another good example of (attempted) status manipulation.
      Apparently, an allied superpower, having made next to no progress in a third world country after nearly a decade of occupation is, whilst not good, not unacceptable either (witness his replacement), whereas for even a high ranking, well regarded General like McChrystal to refer to the Vice-President as a nobody and the President as being uneasy when meeting high ranking Generals is completely unacceptable.
      McChrystal attempted to ‘downgrade’ the status of the P and VP to below his own. He was never going to get away with that. However, it does make one wonder about the current political leadership in the US that someone in McChrystal’s position deemed it appropriate to do that (albeit ‘off the record’).

  • Wouter

    There’s some truth in that everybody conforms to something. Non-conformists however, made a conscious decision about who/what they want to conform to. Conformists didn’t, they never chose or thought, they just do.

    • Matt

      Unless the Conformists considered the non-Conformist options they could conform to and consciously rejected those options…

      Similarly, non-Conformists could easily just be affected by a local trend or be reacting emotively and not really have considered their relationship to or the ideas of the Conformist mainstream.

    • Amy

      “Conformists didn’t, they never chose or thought, they just do”

      Funny, I think it’s the other way around, like people with Asperger’s who just don’t “get” the social nuances necessary to follow a majority. They just do what feels comfortable for them, which just happens to fall outside of the norm. Even their best attempts to conform fail, often causing a lot of stress and frustration for themselves and others. They would like to fit in a little better, if only to avoid being constantly disciplined at work or school for being ill mannered or even disruptive.
      It’s interesting how “conformists” may tout the seeming “non comformists” (the ones who make deliberate efforts to stand out) as being brave, but the truth is the real non-conformists suffer for being incable of social versatility.

  • Bill

    Interesting statement about conformity and groupthink on a site that believes in prediction markets should be used to assess the likelihood of future states.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Here’s a classic effort to define a class of people more non-conformist than the nonconformists. Also, the more recent Book of the SubGenius:

    No, yes, SubGeniuses are merely The Chosen People — the class which cannot be classified, those who are different not only from others but from each other. If any two are the same, ONE MUST GO!

    On a more serious note, I’ll just observe that subculture conformist non-conformity is often a result of the need to signal group affiliation in a costly way. Eg until recently tattoos were a costly way to signal a commitment to a marginal subculture and distance from the mainstream culture; particular hairstyles or dress codes are a lower-commitment form of the same thing.

  • mjgeddes

    The only validation I’m after is that of transhuman readers of these archives in the far future. They will be checking this blog, and will only be impressed by those indicating knowledge far ahead of their time.

    Who on this blog repeatedly warned that Bayesian Induction may be seriously incomplete as a model of normative rationality, well before any academics started raising doubts?. Who correctly identified the true foundation of rationality (categorization)? Who identifed creativity as the real ultimate driving force behind cognition, not rationality? Who pin-pointed the exact foundation of all ‘good’ preferences (beauty and aesthetics) and the exact role of consciousness (third-order causality, integration of different utility functions and creation of narrative). Finally, who first mentioned the significance of the number 27 (‘twenty seven’) in the context of universal categories of thought (or ‘priors’)?

    Not bad for a mere human no? Not bad at all. I’m a legend mateys! Surely I deserve, if not multiple Nobel prizes, then at least entrance to all the best transhuman galactic parties and conferences?

    • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

      “Who on this blog repeatedly warned that Bayesian Induction may be seriously incomplete as a model of normative rationality”

      flagged as an invitation to exceed the word count limit in the OB comments section.

  • http://www.cawtech.freeserve.co.uk Alan Crowe

    Since I’m the only person in Edinburgh who doesn’t wear shoes I look like a non-conformist. Since I’m the odd-one-out in a a city of 500,000 my non-conformist credentials are impeccable. Nevertheless, they are fake.

    My dark and terrible secret is that I’m a bare-pawed lifstyle-fur. If I were a ballsy non-conformist I would wear whiskers, tails and ears. In fact I’m a timid conformist. I couldn’t face the social censure (since I’ve never tried, it is the imagined social censure that stops me) and work hard at staying normal and fitting in. Even my visible eccentricity is a calculated concession to the reality that conformism is not in fact possible.

    When I say that conformis is not in fact possible I’m basing this on the two part nature of conformism. One has an inclination. One sees that it is outside the mainstream. Part one of conformism is external: one conforms one’s external behaviour to the mainstream. Part two is internal: one works at fitting in.

    As an example of part two, imagine that water-cooler talk at work is about a marriage in the popular television soap-opera East Enders. I obtain a television (they are sometimes given away on Freecycle). I put down my copy of Fermat’s Last Theorem: A Genetic Introduction to Algebraic Number Theory. I watch the television program and attempt to participate in the conversation at work the following day.

    This fails in two ways. First, my lack of interest betrays me. Did I see the wedding? Yes, with a sighing, weary tone of voice. I wanted to study a proof about sums of squares, instead I sat through an unpleasant family quarrel preceding doomed nuptials. Whoops! I was supposed to be enthusiastic about the clothes or the drama. Second, my attitude is wrong. My underlying attitude is that I’ve worked hard to fit in and that I’m entitled to some gratitude and appreciation in return. That is a bad attitude. Other people are watching East Enders because they enjoy it. They find it incomprehensible that I expect them to be grateful that I made the effort on their behalf. It makes no sense at all, and marks me out as much weirder than if I had mumbled something incomprehensible about missing the show because I got caught up in a strange book I was reading.

    See how difficult it is to actually be a conformist! One has to work at things that others play at. One has to watch ones attitude, accepting extra work without feeling entitled to anything in return. I’ve called Part Two internal, but the inner struggle leaks outside. There are tells. People know that you are not like them. They are not conforming, they are just behaving naturally. The conformist wants friends but, burdened by his inner struggle, he is dull and lifeless and fails to make them.

    The people that Robin labels as “conformists” couldn’t give a shit about what other people think, they are just getting on with their lives, following their own preferences. Since these preferences are common, the underlying non-conformism is invisible. The people that Robin labels as “non-conformists” are the unlucky ones whose preferences are uncommon. They struggle to be normal and fit in, but since this is impossible, Robin can spot them and pin the upside-down label “non-conformist” on them.

    • J

      This was honest and good. I wish more people tried practicing what they preached and examining the results for problems or pain *before* they tried to preached it.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    What do the experts say?

    I recall Katja Grace’s “Strategic Noncomformance offers reproductive advantage for men” social science article link, which tickled me as one of the more subsversive journal article titles I’ve seen.

    I intuit most “non-conformist” subcultures are sorting of people with similar brain chemistry states building an aesthetic from shared preferences, rather than the grand strategic persistence enhancement coordination games I tend to look for in social interactions. I suspect the strategy arises from populations having to handle status maximizing from relatively rigid cognitive starting points across a distribution of types for their subcomponent agents.

    Beyond that I do think stoners, preppies (and 25%stoner-75%preppies, etc.) do sort and compete, (and agents form pageants that compete against other pageant teams with other agent pageant combinations) like one would expect persisting algorithms to do in a zero sum status and limited fuel environment.

  • Chris Lankford

    Hehe, I’ve always made my act of non-conformity a blatant declaration of supreme conformity. People want to talk to you when you say you’re a massive conformist: they want to lecture you about what’s wrong with that, and about free thinking. It’s just so interesting to them. Of course, it also makes them critical of their own opinions when an open-minded person like myself argues that conformity improves one’s lifestyle drastically by removing conflict and enhancing one’s social status.

    In the end, though, there’s no such thing as “conformity” or “non-conformity”. Someone who was prone to brainwashing by the powers that be as a youngster won’t just listen to anything they hear, and at the same time non-conformists will always follow some mundane trend at some point in their lives, or will (much to my chagrin) criticize conformists for no sound reason. All we have is culture and counter-culture. Where one fits into this spectrum is the real key, not one’s inherent bias towards rejecting or accepting proposed hypotheses. (I couldn’t figure out a way to put the word “variance” into that one. ;_;)

  • Lenoxus

    To me, it seems trivially true both that everyone “conforms to something” (if you eat and breathe, you’re one of those air-breathing-food-eaters), and that everyone “nonconforms to something” (because no two people are exactly identical).

    So actually describing a given person as belonging to either category (is your team the shirts or the skins?) seems not terribly productive. More useful is to examine specific qualities (tastes, philosophies, etc), and scale the degree to which a person conforms, then ask to what extent their non/conforming is conscious decision, made precisely for its own sake. (Sometimes, people consciously conform — they think, “I will do X, in opposition to my preference against it, only because everyone else does it, which will incur other good things”. These comments have some great examples of that.)

    If a person literally did everything in their power to nonconform to all social pressures whatsoever, she would by definition be universally regarded as a jerk or something equally unsavory. Like Andy Samberg.

    Thinking about this reminds me of a review of a book called something like “The 7 Things You Can’t Say in America”, which pointed out that there are of course hundreds of things you “can’t say” which the books’ authors aren’t going to publish just because you can’t say them, like “I genuinely believe in the importance and moral value of raping and eating people.”

    More than anything, that’s what annoys me about people who proudly declare themselves “politically incorrect”, and say “I don’t give a shit whether anything I say “offends” people.” Really? You’d go to your friends and loved ones and say “Eat roadkill!” because that’s just how you roll? There’s nothing I could say to you that would get your blood boiling?

    Obviously, we can and should discuss the boundaries of social behavior, and whether any boundaries whatsoever should even exist. But let’s not act like any of us have shed ourselves of all mores and taboos (things which, in fact, rationalists can be very good at recognizing about themselves :)

    Um, uncalled-for rant over.

  • http://www.phoenixism.net An Unmarried Man

    Isn’t an overwhelming awareness of one’s placement on the Conformity Scale in itself self-devouring? Nonconformity, truly expressed, must lack self-awareness or it becomes just another tiresome affectation.

  • Robert

    This topic is so typical.

  • andrew kieran

    obsessive self-analysis is the road to madness my friend

  • Matt Flipago

    Just because a non-conformist is conformist in some areas, does not default their non-conformist title. If there was a hypothetically a “non-conformist” who was non-conformist in all areas, then intersection between conformist norms and the non conformist actions is the null set. SO this non-conformist is the compliment of society. Thus the non-conformist is conforming to the opposite of society, not be who they really are. Thus non-conformist are only individuals and true non-conformist if they are non-conformist in some areas.

  • Hazza

    I think you have side stepped the issue in this article, because whether you conform to real people, or imaginary people, either way you have made an ideological structure and you mentioned ADOLESCENCE and HEROES.

    If you try to bunch together people into stereotypes of any type, then you fail in the way of the fact that people are subject to change, and change is the only certainty.

    Now if I’m a suited professional, earn loads of money, drive a nice car and live in a nice home does that make me a ‘conformist’?

    Labels can in no way highlight the intricacies of life, and thoughts are simply fluid running this way and that. What may appear to be a ‘conformist’ on the surface, is a deeply complex creature with far too much going on under the hood to be accurately put into a category.

    So anyway, any form of idolization, replace the family and friends you couldn’t please and pick someone (I dunno, Einstein?) and you are merely conforming to a mental idol.

    Now I’m a nerd, you could say I’m a ‘non-conformist’. Or confirming to the nerd archetype.

    Putting yourself on a scale on conformity/non-conformity, you will realise that all the time you are somewhere in between, fluctuating constantly. So thereby this process becomes obsolete. Nowadays non-conforming seems to be wearing DIFFERENT clothes, listening to DIFFERENT obscure bands, turning to a DIFFERENT sexuality, etc etc. It’s nothing more than an almost narcissistic ego boost venture constantly comparing, comparing, comparing. See, never mind details of their personal lives, but you only have to look at people who brought about real change, and their lives came and went, and in the end they achived relatiely little. E.g. equal rights for women, for black people, liberation of one country/region.

    Just something to think about, my 2 cents. Thanks for the article.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/N3WVJA4V252MI4CS74NJMHQ33E Royal_Jester_101

    A NON-CONFORMIST WILL STRUGGLE DAILY IN THE CONFORMING WORLD AROUND THEM. THEY WILL CONSTANTLY QUESTION SOCIAL NORMS AND EXPECTATIONS. THE NON-CONFORMIST WILL SHOW DIRECT CONSEQUENCES FOR THEIR NON-CONFORMITY ON THE PHYSICAL PLANE. FOR INSTANCE, THEY MIGHT NOT HAVE THE NICE CAR, BIG HOUSE OR FRIDAY FRIENDS BECAUSE THEY DONT/WONT CONFORM TO THE STANDARD OPERATIONS WHICH ARE REQUIRED TO ATTAIN AND MAINTAIN THESE POSSESSIONS. NOT TO SAY NON-CONFORMISTS ARE HERMITS UNDER BRIDGES…BUT AT THE SAME TOKEN….NON-CONFORMISTS WILL PAY A PERSONAL PRICE SOCIALLY, FINANCIALLY, SEXUALLY AND PROFESSIONALLY BECAUSE THEIR NON-CONFORMITY SABOTAGES THEIR ABILITY TO COMPROMISE AND CONFORM TO OTHERS THOUGHTS, OPINIONS, APPROVAL, ACCEPTANCE, ETC AND ULTIMATELY SOCIETY. NON-CONFORMISTS VERY OFTEN WILL BE LABELED BY THE ORDINARY CONFORMISTS AROUND THEM AS, STRANGE, LOSER, WEIRD, DISTURBED, SCARY, BIZARRE, DIFFERENT, UNUSAL, STUBBORN, HARD-HEADED, CLUELESS, FUNNY, CRAZY. THIS IS BECAUSE IN THE CONFORMISTS MIND, YOU WOULD HAVE TO BE ONE OF THESE ABOVE TITLES TO HAVE THE MOTIVATION TO NON-CONFORM IN THE MIDST OF CONFORMITY WHICH RESULTS IN ACCEPTANCE, RESOURCES, SECURITY AND FELLOW COMPANY. IN TURN, IN THE NON-CONFORMISTS MIND, THEY BELIEVE THE CONFORMIST IS: A SELL OUT, FAKE, PHONY, COWARD, HYPOCRITE, SCARED, PATHETIC, FOLLOWER, SUCK-UP, INAUTHENTIC, ROBOT, SLAVE, BITCH, WORKER BEE, WEAKLING, LOST, BRAINWASHED. THEY BELIEVE THIS BECAUSE IN THE NON-CONFORMISTS MIND THEY SEE THE WORLD AS A PERSONAL THREAT TO THEIR OWN IDENTITY AND PERSONAL CHOICES IN ORDER TO CONTROL THEM AND MAKE THEM INTO SOMETHING THEY DONT AGREE WITH OR REPRESENT.

    THE CONFORMISTS FAVORITE WORD IS: ACCEPTANCE.
    THE NON-CONFORMISTS FAVORITE WORD IS: AUTHENTIC.

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : On Accidental Altruists

  • Scott

    Conformity is the worst thing that can happen to any society. It causes a majority, which is usually the simple minded “average joes”, to outcast the more thoughtful and open minded people. This in turn encourages mediocrity, and encourages people who could have otherwise done great things, to conform to societal norms so they can fit in, or at least not become outcasts. I personally think if we lived in a non conformists society, we’d be much more advanced in every way.