Search Results for: conformity

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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Conformity Shows Loyalty

"The world has too many people showing too much loyalty to their groups.  That is why I’m so proud to be member of ALU, anti-loyalists united, where we refuse to show loyalty to any other groups. My local chapter just kicked out George for suspicion of showing loyalty to California, and we chastised Ellen for expressing doubts about the latest anti-loyalty directives from headquarters.  We’ll only lick loyalty by showing we are united behind our courageous ALU leaders.  All hail ALU!"

Sounds pretty silly, right?  But I hear something pretty similar when I hear folks say they are proud to be part of a group that fights conformity by pushing their unusual beliefs.  Especially when such folks seem more comfortable claiming their beliefs contribute to diversity than that they are true.   

We use belief conformity to show loyalty to particular groups, relative to other groups.  We rarely bother to show loyalty to humanity as a whole, because non-humans threaten little.  So we rarely bother to try to conform our beliefs with humanity as a whole, which is why herding experiments with random subjects show no general conformity tendencies

Our conformity efforts instead target smaller in-groups, with more threatening out-groups.  And we are most willing to conform our beliefs on abstract ideological topics, like politics or religion, where our opinions have few other personal consequences.  Our choices show to which conflicting groups we feel the most allied.   

You just can’t fight "conformity" by indulging the evil pleasure of enjoying your conformity to a small tight-knit group of "non-conformists."  All this does is promote some groups at the expense of other groups, and poisons your mind in the process.  It is like fighting "loyalty" by dogged devotion to an anti-loyalty alliance.

Best to clear your mind and emotions of group loyalties and resentments and ask, if this belief gave me no pleasure of rebelling against some folks or identifying with others, if it was just me alone choosing, would my best evidence suggest that this belief is true?  All else is the road to rationality ruin. 

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What Belief Conformity?

I wrote:

We feel a deep pleasure from realizing that we believe something in common with our friends, and different from most people. … This feeling is EVIL.

Patri Friedman responded:

I see this bias as counteracting the bias of groupthink. The opposite bias is for people to enjoy believing what everyone else believes. This leads to homogeneity of viewpoints, less generation and testing of new hypothesis, and stasis. The people who enjoy believing they have a secret truth are those who nurture non-mainstream but plausible hypotheses, and accumulate new evidence to possibly challenge the mainstream. I think this is very valuable.

Yes, we want to explore a diversity of hypotheses, but this doesn’t require a diversity of beliefs; we can believe similar things while exploring different things.  Yes, groupthink seems to exist, but not as a general bias to conform to average beliefs; groupthink is a bias to conform to in-group beliefs against out-groups.  Thus by their nature groupthink biases of in-groups come already countered by out-groups. 

When a particular group (such as academia) rewards in-group conformity, you may at times be right to resist that.  But by doing so you would not be resisting some general pressure to conform with a global average; you would instead be favoring one group less than others.  I see no general conformity pressure in need of resisting; I instead see instead particular groupthinks, some of which may be preferred to others. 

For example, in herding experiments, subjects must choose between a few acts (e.g., which movie to watch), where some acts pay better than others.  One at a time subjects choose an act, after seeing both a private clue about act quality, and seeing others’ previous choices.  I’ve just reviewed 16 papers on this (including this this this this this this this this this this this and this).

Continue reading "What Belief Conformity?" »

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Conformity Questions

Follow-up to: Conformity Myths

Robin posted earlier about a NYT Magazine article on conformity. I was able to find an online copy of the scientific paper here: http://psr.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/10/1/2.

The synopsis from the NYT is not complete. Of the 12 times that people were challenged to disagree with the social consensus, the most popular choice was to agree 0 times. 25% of the subjects did this. The second most common was to agree 3 times, done by 14%. Third most common was agreeing 8 times, 11%. Only 5% went along with the crowd all 12 times.

I think it’s quite significant that 25% of subjects never went along with the crowd and stuck to their own perceptions. In total, only 32% of the answers were wrong.

I’m not sure I follow Robin’s comments on this. It seems to me that this re-interpretation of the classic experiment suggests that people are not as conformist as generally thought. That would mean that we do more than merely give lip service to celebrating independence, that culturally we are quite effective at following the ideal of independent thinking.

The key question is, what is the right thing to do here? Should one conform when presented with 8 people denying the evidence of one’s own senses? I argue that it is the right thing to do.

Now of course, if you know you’re in a psychological experiment, maybe you can’t help but be suspicious that something fishy is going on. But in general, in real life, if 8 people come in and tell you that your perceptions are completely wrong, you should take it very seriously. I imagine that in the history of the world, in the great majority of such situations, the 8 were right and the one was wrong. As an example that some may be familiar with, if a bunch of friends come in and tell you you’re drinking too much, while your perception is that you can easily handle the alcohol, you should probably listen to them.

I would suggest that conformity is the right thing to do in these situations, and to that extent I am rather dismayed that the subjects were as non-conformist as this data shows.

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Conformity Myths

Conformity gets a bad rap.  From NYT Mag:

The psychologists Bert Hodges and Anne Geyer recently took a new look at a well-known experiment devised by Asch in the 1950s.  Asch’s subjects were asked to look at a line printed on a white card and then tell which of three similar lines was the same length. The answer was obvious, but the catch was that each volunteer was sitting in a small group whose other members were actually in on the experiment. Asch found that when those other people all agreed on the wrong answer, many of the subjects went along with the group, against the evidence of their own senses.

But the question (Which of these lines matches the one on the card?) was not posed just once. Each subject saw 18 sets of lines, and the group answer was wrong for 12 of them. Examining all the data, Hodges and Geyer found that many people were varying their answers, sometimes agreeing with the group, more often sticking up for their own view. (The average participant gave in to the group three times out of 12.)

This means that the subjects in the most famous "people are sheep" experiment were not sheep at all – they were human beings who largely stuck to their guns, but now and then went along with the group.

Our culture gives lip service to celebrating independence and dengrating conformity, but not only do we not actually discourage conformity much, it is not obvious that conformity as typically practiced is such a bad thing. 

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Asch’s Conformity Experiment

Asch2 Solomon Asch, with experiments originally carried out in the 1950s and well-replicated since, highlighted a phenomenon now known as “conformity”.  In the classic experiment, a subject sees a puzzle like the one in the nearby diagram:  Which of the lines A, B, and C is the same size as the line X?  Take a moment to determine your own answer…

The gotcha is that the subject is seated alongside a number of other people looking at the diagram – seemingly other subjects, actually confederates of the experimenter.  The other “subjects” in the experiment, one after the other, say that line C seems to be the same size as X.  The real subject is seated next-to-last.  How many people, placed in this situation, would say “C” – giving an obviously incorrect answer that agrees with the unanimous answer of the other subjects?  What do you think the percentage would be?

Continue reading "Asch’s Conformity Experiment" »

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How Many Judges?

“Wow, that was sure a long slow legal process we just went through to get X punished for Y. Surely many such cases are never punished, because this process is just too hard.”

“I’ve heard that in some places it is much simpler and faster. If you have a complaint, you call over the local police officer, and he or she soon looks into it, and then makes a decision, usually that day. Fast and easy, no need for lawyers, courts, etc. Doesn’t that sound better?”

“No, that sounds terrible! What if that local police is corrupt, or biased, or stupid? Our checks and balances help correct for such problems.”

“Well in our system, after a slow expensive complex process, judges usually make the final decision. So what stops judges from being as corrupt, biased, or stupid as police?”

“Well there are a lot fewer judges than police, so we can focus our attention on a smaller number of them. For example, we can send in people undercover to try to bribe them, and arrest those who accept bribes.”

“But we almost never actually do that with judges. And we could also do that with police.”

“With judges we have an appeals system, where appeals judges fix other judges’ mistakes. And the process is public, so anyone can point to problems.”

“We could do an appeals system with police too – if there’s a complaint, call nearby police to see if they want to come make a quick appeals decision. And that process could be public.”

“We elect judges, or those who appoint them. That holds them accountable to citizens.”

“So why can’t we elect police, or those who appoint them?”

“Judges are more prestigious than police. They are picked for being the lawyers who are most respected by other lawyers.”

“Our actual police are also the most respected among people who apply to police academy.”

“Yeah but overall lawyers are more prestigious than police. They go to college, know big words, make more money.”

“And that makes them less corruptible or biased, and more just?”

“Well elites are more eager to conform, and are better able to conform, so either they will almost all be corrupt and biased or almost none will be.”

“Not sure I feel better about that. And aren’t they better at knowing how to tell when they can get away with things, so that they will be better at finding the loopholes where we are not checking, to be more corrupt and biased there? And doesn’t their conformity better help them coordinate to get away with stuff together?”

“Look, humans have long chosen to be ruled by prestigious elites, its our nature. So it must work somehow. We pick prestigious lawyers to run law, prestigious doctors to run medicine, and prestigious academics to run teaching and research. And those work well, right?”

“Okay, if it is better to be ruled by a smaller group of more prestigious people, making judges better than police, why isn’t it even better to be ruled by one most prestigious of all dictator? Who appoints and fires police or judges as they want?”

“No no, that’s terrible too! That’s too much concentration of power. This dictator could rule with impunity, because even if some of us know of his/her corruption or bias, we’ll be afraid to say so in public. He/she could crush us for our opposition.”

“But can’t judges crush us for opposing them?”

“No, that never happens. When have you ever heard of judges crushing opponents?”

“In a dictatorship, would you actually hear of the dictator crushing opponents?”

“I’m sure I would. And dictators don’t tend to be the most prestigious; they tend to be brutal thugs.”

“But won’t everyone say they are prestigious, out of fear of retaliation? And if it is better to spread out a dictator’s power, among many judges, why isn’t it even better to spread out that power among even more police?”

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How To Not Die (Soon)

You don’t want to die. If you heard that an asteroid would soon destroy a vast area around your home, you’d pay great costs to help you and your loved ones try to move. Even if you’d probably fail, even of most of your loved ones might not make it, and even if success meant adapting to a strange world far from home. If that’s not you, then this post isn’t for you.

Okay, you think you don’t want to die. But what exactly does that mean?

“You” are the time sequence of mental states that results from a certain large signal processing system: your “brain.” Each small part in this system takes signals in from other parts, changes its local state in response, and then sends signals out to other parts. At the border of this system, signals come in from “sensors”, e.g., eyes, and are sent out to “actuators”, e.g., hands.

You have differing mental states when these signals are different, and you live only as long as these signals keep moving. As best we can tell, from all the evidence we’ve ever seen, when these signals stop, you stop. When they stop for good, you die. As your brain is made out of completely ordinary materials undergoing quite well understood physical processes, all that’s left to be you is the pattern of your brain signals. That’s you; when that stops, you stop. (So yes, patterns feel.) Continue reading "How To Not Die (Soon)" »

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Radical Signals

Many people tout big outside-the-Overton “radical” proposals for change. They rarely do this apologetically; instead, they often do this in a proud and defiant tone. They seem to say directly that their proposal deserves better than it has gotten, and indirectly that they personally should be admired for their advocacy.

Such advocacy also tends to look a lot like costly signaling. That is, advocates seem to go out of their way to pay costs, such as via protests, meetings, writing redundant boring diatribes, accosting indifferent listeners at parties, implying that others don’t care enough, and so on. But it so, what exactly are they signaling?

If you recall, costly signaling is a process whereby you pay visible costs, but make sure that those costs are actually less when some parameter X is higher. If you get a high enough payoff from persuading audiences that X is high, you are plausibly willing to pay for these costly signals, in order to produce this persuasion. For example, you pay to go to school, but since school is easier if your are smart and conformist, going to school shows those qualities to observers.

Here are six things you might show about a radical proposal:

Investment – It is a good financial investment. You pay costs to initiate or improve a business venture or investment fund that includes variations on this proposal. Doing so is less costly, and even net profitable for you, if this turns out to be a profitable project. By visibly paying costs, you hope to convince others to join your investment.

Popularity – It will eventually become more popular. You lend your time, attention, and credibility to a “movement” in favor of this proposal. This effort on your part may be rewarded with praise, prestige, and attention if this movement becomes a lot more popular and fashionable. You hope that your visible support will convince others to add their support.

Morality – You, and the other supporters of this proposal, are unusually moral. You pick a proposal which, if passed, would impose large costs in the service of a key moral goal. For example, you might proposal a 90% tax on the rich, or no limits on encryption. Others have long been aware of those extreme options, but due to key tradeoffs they preferred less extreme options. You show your commitment to one of the values that are traded off by declaring you are willing to lose big on all the other considerations, if only you can win on yours.

Conformity – You are a loyal member of some unusual group. You show that loyalty by burning your bridges with other groups, via endorsing radical proposals which much put off other groups. This is similar to adopting odd rules on food and dress, or strange religious or ideological beliefs. Once a radical proposal is associated with your group for any reason, you show loyalty to that group by supporting that proposal.

Inventive – You are clever enough to come up with surprising solutions. You take a design problem that has vexed many, and offer a new design proposal that seems unusually simple elegant, and effective. Relative to someone who wanted to show effectiveness, your proposal would be simpler and more elegant, and it would focus on solving the problems that seem most visible and vexing to observers, instead of what are actually the most important problems. It would also tend to use theories that observers believe in, relative to theories that are true.

Effective – If adopted, your proposal would be effective at achieving widely held goals. To show effectiveness, you incur costs to show things that are correlated with effectiveness. For example, you might design, start, or complete related theoretical analyses, fault analyses, lab experiments, or field experiments. You might try to search for problematic scenarios or effects related to your proposal, and search for design variations that could better address them. You might search for plans to do small scale trials that can give clearer cheaper results, and that address some key potential problems.

In principle showing each of these things can also show the others. For example, showing that something is moral might help show its potential to become popular. Still, we can distinguish what an advocate is more directly trying to show, from what showing that would indirectly show.

It seems to me that, among the above options, the most socially valuable form of signaling is effectiveness. If we could induce an equilibrium where people tried to show the other things via trying to show effectiveness, we’d induce a lot more useful effort to figure out what variations are effective, which should help us to find and adopt more and better radical proposals. If we can’t get that, inventiveness seems the second best option.

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Libertarian Varieties

Here at GMU Econ we tend to lean libertarian, but in a wide range of ways. For example, here are two recent posts by colleagues:

Don Boudreaux:

The economy is an emergent and dynamic order that was not, and could not possibly be, designed – and, hence, that cannot possibly be successfully engineered. … the economy is not a device or an organization with a purpose. It is, instead, the result of the multitude of interactions of hundreds of millions of diverse individual entities – persons, households, firms, and governments – each pursuing its own purposes. …

Competent intro-economics professors keep their aspirations modest. In my case, these are two. The first is to impress upon my students the full weight of the fact that the economy is an inconceivably complex order of interactions that cannot possibly be engineered. The second is to inspire students always to ask questions that too often go unasked – questions such as “From where will the resources come to provide that service?” “Why should Sam’s assessment of Sally’s choices be regarded more highly than Sally’s own assessment?” “What consequences beyond the obvious ones might result from that government action?” And, most importantly of all, “As compared to what?”

Students who successfully complete any well-taught economics course do not have their egos inflated with delusions that they can advise Leviathan to engineer improvements in society. Quite the opposite. But these students do emerge with the too-rare humility that marks those who understand that the best service they can offer is to ask penetrating and pertinent questions that are asked by almost no others. (more)

I’m a big fan of learning to ask good questions; it is great to be able to see puzzles, and to resist the temptation to explain them away too quickly. However, I’m less enamored of teaching people to “ask questions” when they are supposed to see certain answers as obvious.

And the fact that a system is complex doesn’t imply that one cannot usefully “engineer” connections to it. For example, the human body is complex, and yet we can usefully engineer our diets, views, clothes, furniture, air input/outputs, sanitation, and medical interventions.

Yes, most students are overly prone to endorse simple-minded policies with large side effects that they do not understand. But I attribute this less to a lack of awareness of complexity, and more to an eagerness to show values; they care less about the effects of polices than about the values they signal by supporting them. After all, people are also prone to offer overly simple-minded advise to the individual people around them, for similar reasons.

Dan Klein:

Government is a special sort of player in society; its initiations of coercion differ from those of criminals. Its coercions are overt, institutionalized, openly rationalized, even supported by a large portion of the public. They are called intervention or restriction or regulation or taxation, rather than extortion, assault, theft, or trespass. But such government interventions are still initiations of coercion. That’s important, because recognizing it helps to sustain a presumption against them, a presumption of liberty. CLs [= classical liberals] and libertarians think that many extant interventions do not, in fact, meet the burden of proof for overcoming the presumption. Many interventions should be rolled back, repealed, abolished.

Thus CLs and libertarians favor liberalizing social affairs. That goes as general presumption: For business, work, and trade, but also for guns and for “social” issues, such as drugs, sex, speech, and voluntary association.

CLs and libertarians favor smaller government. Government operations, such as schools, rely on taxes or privileges (and sometimes partially user fees). Even apart from the coercive nature of taxation, they don’t like the government’s playing such a large role in social affairs, for its unhealthy moral and cultural effects.

There are some libertarians, however, who have never seen an intervention that meets the burden of proof. They can be categorical in a way that CLs are not, believing in liberty as a sort of moral axiom. Sometimes libertarians ponder a pure-liberty destination. They can seem millenarian, radical, and rationalistic. …
But libertarian has also been used to describe a more pragmatic attitude situated in the status quo yet looking to liberalize, a directional tendency to augment liberty, even if reforms are small or moderate. (more)

Along with Dan, I only lean against government intervention; that presumption can be and is often overcome. But the concept of coercion isn’t very central to my presumption. At a basic level, I embrace the usual economists’ market failure analysis, preferring interventions that fix large market failures, relative to obvious to-be-expected government failures.

But at a meta level, I care more about having good feedback/learning/innovation processes. The main reason that I tend to be wary of government intervention is that it more often creates processes with low levels of adaptation and innovation regarding technology and individual preferences. Yes, in principle dissatisfied voters can elect politicians who promise particular reforms. But voters have quite limited spotlights of attention and must navigate long chains of accountability to detect and induce real lasting gains.

Yes, low-government mechanisms often also have big problems with adaptation and innovation, especially when customers mainly care about signaling things like loyalty, conformity, wealth, etc. Even so, the track record I see, at least for now, is that these failures have been less severe than comparable government failures. In this case, the devil we know more does in fact tend to be better that the devil we know less.

So when I try to design better social institutions, and to support the proposals of others, I’m less focused than many on assuring zero government invention, or on minimizing “coercion” however conceived, and more concerned to ensure healthy competition overall.

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