Joiners v. Middlers

Kelley … traced the success of conservative churches to their ability to attract and retain an active and committed membership, characteristics that he in turn attributed to their strict demands for complete loyalty, unwavering belief, and rigid adherence to a distinctive lifestyle. … [Such] a group limits and thereby increases the cost of non-group activities, such as socializing with members of other churches or pursuing “secular” pastime. …

Seemingly unproductive costs … screen out people whose participation would otherwise be low, while at the same time they increase participation among those who do join. As a consequence, apparently unproductive sacrifices can increase the utility of group members. Efficient religions with perfectly rational members may thus embrace stigma, self-sacrifice, and bizarre behavioral standards. …

When we group religions according to the (rated) stringency of their demands, … [we see that] compared to members of other Protestant denominations, [high-demand] sect members are poorer and less educated, contribute more money and attend more services, hold stronger beliefs, belong to more church-related groups, and are less involved in secular organizations. … Data from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey reveal patterns of interdenominational variation virtually identical to those observed within Protestantism. (more)

I see these tendencies in opinions:

  1. Those with more opinions on some topic categories have more on other categories.
  2. Those with more opinions overall have more extreme opinions on each topic.
  3. Those with more extreme opinions on some topics have more extreme opinions on others.
  4. Those with more extreme opinions are more eager to express their opinions, and vice versa.
  5. Those with more extreme opinions are more eager to join groups and attend their meetings.

(All these could have instead been expressed in terms of less extreme opinions, and “extreme” means noticeably away from the distribution middle.)

One might try to explain these by saying that opinions on a few key topics drive most other opinions. Folks with weak opinions on key topics thus have fewer opinions on other topics, and less interest in expressing opinions or in joining groups to spread the word. Yet there is little evidence that such key opinions exist; most people show little correlation of opinion across topics, or even on the same subject across time.

A more plausible explanation follows the quote above on religion. Religions, ideologies, and other idea-affiliated social groups vary in the level of commitment they ask of members. High commitment groups produce stronger community bonds, and people vary in their taste for such strong bonds. Some folks are “joiners,” with a taste for more strongly bonded groups. Joiners have an induced taste for groups with extreme opinions, and thus an induced taste to have their own more extreme opinions, in order to better fit with stronger groups. Thus joiners tend to let themselves have more opinions and more extreme opinions on many topics.

The opposite group are “middlers,” who prefer to get along mildly well with most everyone, instead of bonding more tightly with a smaller group. Middlers have fewer opinions, fewer extreme opinions, and tend not to join groups that are clearly distinguished by being associated with unusual opinions.

The opinions habits of both joiners and middlers come mainly from social preferences, instead of a preference for belief accuracy. While it isn’t obvious which group is more wrong, it is more obviously wrong to embody the opinion correlations described above.

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  • Sean

    Relative to your other posts, this was very difficult for me to understand. I’m still not sure if I really know what you meant, and I’ve read it 2 1/2 times now.

  • Nancy Lebovitz

    Any thoughts about the rise and decline of men’s lodges in the US (Moose, Masons, Lions)? So far as I know, they didn’t actively restrict other activities, but they take up some time and did a lot to make members’ identity include membership.

  • joiner vs. middler seems incomplete. I think you need to add “troll” or something. There are a lot of people who hold/express strong opinions to differentiate themselves from others rather than to bond with them. Holding strange opinions can raise their status (at least in their own mind) by making them seem smarter, more thoughtful and more independent than people who accept “the conventional wisdom” on many questions. I don’t think you could call Mencius Moldbug a joiner, for instance.

    • Belisarius85

      Perhaps a variation of “contrarian” would be a better term.

      In my experience, there are many people who define themselves largely by what they oppose rather than what they support.

      I suspect they provide a useful function for society, in that they provide a counterbalance to the extremes, like a damper in a spring-and-damper system.

    • Contrarians are making their bid to form a group, in which they themselves, as intellectual leaders, enjoy the highest status . (Forming is a kind of joining.)

      • oldoddjobs

        All contrarians are doing this?

  • Jess Riedel

    In order to generate predictions to test the validity of this conjectured joiner/middler distinction, it would useful to make a connection between it and other more established personality traits like the Big Five.

    • The linked article tends to show its not a personality trait. One of the best predictors of being a joiner is circumstance: does the person have numerous opportunities (that conflict with joining)?

      (A digression: most interesting personality trait variables don’t link to the Big 5, which I think is properly viewed as a summary of factor analytic studies rather than of anything (typically) real. There’s really nothing in factor-analytic methodology to “cut reality at its seams.”) The rotation problem, as it used to be called, is unsolvable by factor-analytic methods alone.)

  • Doug

    “Those with more opinions overall have more extreme opinions on each topic.”

    This needs clarification. Are saying that someone with a lot of opinions is more likely to hold at least one or more extreme opinions? If so, that seems like a triviality. The larger N is the higher E(max(N)) will be.

    But if you’re contesting that those with many opinions have opinions that are more extreme on average, I’d like to see if that’s true. Consider many of the most extreme political opinions: conspiracy theories, racial segregation, advocation of violent revolution, etc. The typical proponent tends to be less-educated and intelligent than average.

    It’s unlikely that your average neo-Nazi even knows about, let alone had an understanding of monetary policy or international IP law.

    • It’s unlikely that your average neo-Nazi even knows about, let alone had an understanding of monetary policy or international IP law.

      In fact, neo-Nazis have all sorts of extreme opinions on all sorts of topics. (Cf. The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno et al.)

      • oldoddjobs

        The Authoritarian Personality. Nothing but hard science.

  • Matt

    There is already an informal term for personality types that have lots of strong, uncorrelated opinions–such people are described as “opinionated.” When I think of common traits of “opinionated” people, some come to mind–extroversion, stubborness, perhaps vanity, and at least slightly above average intelligence. But desire for in-group conformism does not seem to map on to them as well.

  • Michael Vassar

    Isn’t this basically just a restatement of “most live lives of quiet desperation”?

    • Not clear which of these types you have in mind.

  • I, too, conclude that opinionation ( ) derives from narrow alliances. (See new posting [with some Hanson links] in Status inflation and deflation: Prestige, the essence of status, permits broad alliances”

  • WT

    The study cited seems weak evidence to base a theory like this on. Its just one paper, its highly dated (surveys from the50s and 60s), and its methodology is highly subjective. I don’t think you can advance this theory in good faith without some recent quantitative studies on the correlation of political beliefs showing low correlation.

  • wm13

    I’m not sure that works. Consider that the religious middle in the United States consists of lukewarm, Christianity-tinged spirituality, what Christian Smith called “moralistic therapeutic deism.” At one extreme, evangelical Christians and orthodox Jews form strong, cohesive, socially encompassing organizations, but there aren’t correspondingly strong, cohesive, socially encompassing organizations of militant atheists. Instead there are disaffected loners.

    (Maybe someone wants to suggest that the universities are the atheist correlative of the evangelical churches and orthodox shuls, but that’s not really true. Very few academics are militant atheists; their god is just a little more impersonal than the god of the mainline moralistic therapeutic deists.)

    • Atheism isn’t really a belief—more usually, the absence of belief. It requires, for example, no behavioral oddities. But when you get into more elaborated forms of atheism, such as Objectivism (or even Yudkowskyism), joining is prevalent.

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