Conformity Excuses

From a distance it seems hard to explain a lot of human behavior without presuming that we humans have strong desires to conform to the behaviors of others. But when we look at our conscious thoughts and motivations regarding our specific behaviors, we find almost no conformity pressures. We are only rarely aware that we do anything, or avoid doing other things, because we want to conform.

The obvious explanation is that we make many excuses for our conformity – we make up other mostly-false explanations for why we like the same things that others like, and dislike other things. And since we do a lot of conforming, there must be a lot of bias here. So we can uncover and understand a lot of our biases if we can identify and understand these excuses. Here are a few possibilities that come to mind. I expect there are many others.

I picked my likes first, my group second. We like to point out that we are okay with liking many things that many others in the world don’t like. Yes, the people around us tend to like those same things, but that isn’t us conforming to those social neighbors, because we picked the things we like first, and then picked those people around us as a consequence. Or so we say. But we conform far more to our neighbors than can plausibly be explained by our limited selection power.

I just couldn’t be happy elsewhere. We tend to tell ourselves that we couldn’t be happy in a different profession, city, or culture, in part to excuse our reluctance to deviate from the standard practices of such things. We’d actually adjust fine to much larger moves than we are willing to consider.

I actually like small differences. We notice that we don’t like to come to a party in the exact same dress as someone else. We also want different home decorations and garden layouts, and we don’t want to be reading the exact same book as everyone else at the moment. We then extrapolate and think we don’t mind being arbitrarily different.

In future, this will be more popular. We are often okay with doing something different today because we imagine that it will become much more popular later. Then we can be celebrated for being one of the first to like it. If we were sure that few would ever like it, we’d be much less willing to like it now.

Second tier folks aren’t remotely as good. While we personally can tell the difference between someone who is very bad and someone who is very good, we usually just don’t have the discernment to tell the difference in quality between the most popular folks and second tier folks who are much less popular. But we tell ourselves that we can tell the difference, to justify our strong emphasis on those most popular folks.

Unpopular things are objectively defective. We probably make many specific excuses about unpopular things, to justify our neglect of them.

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  • Some arguments for why conformity is rational:

    The evolution selected us to prefer small incremental changes.

    The risks and uncertainty associated with larger changes are real. Risk = cost.

    And more generally, humans, perhaps more than any other living organisms, have succeeded by
    1) Leveraging off each other’s information. So conformity just reflects limited information budgets (cheaper to copy most things from others and focus on things where you have some marginal information edge)
    2) Cooperating. This requires signalling that you will cooperate. The easiest is to signal that you belong to the same group.

  • Robert Koslover

    Re, the “I just couldn’t be happy elsewhere,” item, I’d like to see you expand further on that. I’ve always been impressed by the fact that so many, many poor, suffering, honest, hard-working people who live in failed, crime-ridden, inner-cities are simply unwilling to move out of them. They don’t even begin to try. In the US, at least, there is no law keeping them there. Sure, for those residents who are criminals themselves, one can see why they might want to stay in such circumstances, to continue to prey upon others. And yes, there are also honest people who live and work in such environments because they are committed to specialized kinds of work or charities that are only possible there, so they may have good reasons to stay, too. But why, for example, would an ordinary honest person who works as (for example) a short-order cook in a burger joint in a crime-ridden inner city, and who has been repeatedly mugged, robbed, etc, and may even live in constant fear, actually want to stay there rather than move to (for example) a small town with enormously-less crime, a lower cost of living (yes, really!), and with the opportunity to practically walk right into a similar burger-cooking job that pays just as well? The answer, it seems, is often exactly what you said, i.e., “I just couldn’t be happy elsewhere.” I’ve also personally witnessed people refuse to even consider, let alone pursue, easily-obtained, higher-paying, higher-status, more-secure, more-comfortable, better-all-around jobs being openly-advertised just down the street from their present jobs, for the exact same reason. The jobs they were staying in offered absolutely no discernible advantage they could identify, save for one: that they wouldn’t have to change anything. It seems to me that this severely-damaging inertia, this general unwillingness to consider even simple, easy, overwhelmingly-positive changes to improve one’s lot in life (where one lives, works, etc.) is a very destructive force in our society and economy. But you know, I sure don’t see this mentioned much in economics or politics essays and editorials about wealth, poverty, income inequality, etc.

    • Robert Koslover

      I should make clear that my inner-city example was just an example. The same applies to people who live/work in any other failed/failing locations where jobs have disappeared. Many of the people there just won’t move away, despite the dire circumstances in which they find themselves.

      • Faze

        Networks of friends and family are priceless assets. They contribute a great deal to individual happiness. Long-term residence in a specific place builds equity in the form of memory, associations and acquaintances that enriches one’s life.
        Poor people’s housing and income may be tied into local welfare programs in such a way that moving, and attempting to reestablish those benefits elsewhere, would be unacceptably difficult.

      • Tyrrell_McAllister

        Networks of friends and family are priceless assets.

        I think that this is the main reason. While not priceless, they are definitely very valuable. Moreover, the worse your material circumstances are, the more valuable these networks become. Certainly they were extremely valuable in our environment of evolutionary adaptedness. So we are probably prone to seeing them as even more valuable than they are in our own situations.

  • tjb1013

    Laland, Kevin N. ‘Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony’. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017. Print.

    The whole thing, but particularly Chapters 2, Ubiquitous Copying and 3, Why Copy?

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  • mikemikemikemikemike

    I think for many things this article is very valid, but for some things it is actually true that the popular “conformist” believe is correct. For instance, picking a programming language that is popular means that you are picking one that has the collective approval of many of your peers, and since most programming languages are open source, it also means that there are more people to contribute and make it better, and there more people to find problems, etc. It also means that there is more information out there, stack overflow posts, books, etc.

    This same argument applies to some products, such as technology. For instance, I remember having a debate years ago with my brother who is convinced that some billionaire class started would come out with a competitor to the iPhone (insert android or any other major major phone brand) that was better than the iPhone, and that it would be thousands of dollars. Some companies did try this, but they were objectively shit compared to the iPhone. This is because Apple had an economy of scale that nobody else could afford, having sold hundreds of millions of fans. The same principle, especially pertaining to the economy of scale argument, applies to many many things, and as a result, it is sometimes a sub conscious decision to go with what other people have, because it saves you the trouble of having to dig deeper into something that you don’t have special information about.

    • Tyrrell_McAllister

      Robin isn’t claiming that conforming as such has no value.

      His premises are (1) we do in fact often aim to conform for conforming’s sake, and (2) we often deny that we’re doing this, even to ourselves.

      His point is that this denial is so bizarrely contrary to the facts that there must be some very interesting mental processes behind it.

      Your point (that there are often good reasons to conform) only highlights the bizarreness of our denial. Why deny that we’re doing something when there are good reasons to do it anyway? This strengthens his case for investigating the processes behind our denial.

      • this denial is so bizarrely contrary to the facts

        The denial is strongly contradicted by the facts when we observe the pattern, but in individual cases (as shown in the discussion in this thread on residential relocation) it’s not bizarre. In fact, the only pattern I observe in the rationalizations that Robin surveys is that they are plausible alternatives. (Unlike the syndrome of confabulation, where the explanations are often bizarre.) As with subjects of posthypnotic suggestion who must rationalize carrying out ridiculous acts implanted by the hypnotist, we find the least bizarre explanations we can for conformity. This also contrasts with defensive processes, which often go overboard (e.g. reaction formation). So, it seems like that conformity is largely a process based on suggestion. We really don’t know that we are conforming, rather than using an active process of denial.

      • An active process of denial is suggested by the fact that when a person does privately fail to conform, he often publicly announces that he privately conforms, that is, he lies about his conformity and non-conformity. E.g. someone will say that he has read some popular book, when he has not.

        This suggests a very strong motive for conformity: so that other people will like you.

        But there is also a motive to provide a different explanation, rather than saying this is the reason. Because people will presumably like you if you like what they like, while if you say “I am doing this just so you will like me,” then you do not like what they like, but you merely like being liked.

      • Conformity for the sake of being liked isn’t “conformity for conformity’s sake.” People aren’t generally prone to deny that they want to be liked, although it has acquired some taint in individual-worshiping cultures and sends a bad single but only in certain selective contexts.

      • People don’t deny that they want to be liked.

        They DO deny that the reason they imitate you is that they want you to like them, since that would defeat the purpose. They expect you to like people similar to yourself, and if that is their motive, then they are not similar to you, since you presumably do those things because you like doing them.

      • They DO deny that the reason they imitate you is that they want you to like them…

        Our difference is that I don’t think conformity is based on a concealed desire to be liked. For one thing, under most circumstances x uses conformity to prove that x likes y. Most of all, we like those who like us!

        When conformity is for inducing liking it is very open. A gang member wears his colors, a frat rat submits to hazings, not because he likes these things in common with others but to show that he likes those others enough to imitate them, whether he likes those things or not.

      • People do both things, at different times and in different ways.

      • My claim is that neither is fundamental to the unnoticed conformism described by Robin.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        I often conform solely for the effect on other people, and don’t deny it.

        For example lately I’ve been trying to dress better, because I get treated better that way.

        I’d prefer to wear my hacker schlub worn-out T-shirts and jeans, but I don’t get treated as well when I do that.

  • JW Ogden

    1. I think of art as moving a little beyond the familiar but not too far else it becomes uncomfortable. This could explain some.
    2. I find looking at someone with style of hair too far form norms (like Trump) to be a bit uncomfortable. Could this be because it makes my brain work harder? This also could explain some.

  • Riothamus

    Can we usefully compare this to the amount of effort and attention spent on encouraging others to conform to us? Identity-based appeals appear to be explicit.

    The reproductive urge is an attempt to propagate genetic information; I imagine the driving heuristics have some influence over cultural information in turn.