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Zelig and the Psychology of Wanting to Fit In

We are all human chameleons.

Remember Zelig? He was the main character of Woody Allen’s 1983 mockumentary, who changed his appearance depending on who was standing next to him. When talking to Orthodox Jews, he quickly grew a beard and payot. When mingling with black people, his complexion suddenly grew darker. The ‘Human Chameleon’, as he was called.

Zelig hits a nerve because we are all like Zelig a little bit. I behave very differently in a beach bar in Santa Monica and at high table in an Oxford college. My skin color or my facial hair may not change, but the way I talk or walk would. We all do this to some extent – some of us more than others. The problem is that we, as a society, are becoming more and more like Zelig.

Here is an illustration of this Zeligification of our society. A study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that tweets with emotional/moral content are more likely to be diffused (a fancy word for retweeted) within ideological groups but they are much less likely to be retweeted across ideological boundaries. More generally, the moral/emotional (again, fancy talk for touchy-feely) language used in one ideological group is very homogenous, but differs sharply from the language used in other ideological groups.

In other words, there are major differences in the touchy-feely language Democrats and Republicans use, but two random Democrats talk in a remarkably similar manner. We talk (or at least tweet) in a more and more homogeneous manner but only with people who we take to be our ideological allies. The big question is what explains this linguistic and emotional segregation.

It would be difficult to deny that this Zeligification has a lot to do with social media. When you tweet something, you want it to be retweeted and liked. But for this, you need to tweet something you expect to match the interest of others. And these others do exactly the same. What we get is chameleons adjusting their color to other chameleons. This setup – which we know a lot about from game theory – invariably leads to smaller homogenous groups that hardly communicate with each other.

There is an extra layer of complication. I said we are like chameleons trying to adjust our color to other chameleons. But things are even more messed up. When we tweet, we don’t actually know the potential retweeters – we’ve never met the vast majority of them. We can only guess. So we are trying to second-guess the preferences of our virtual community. We are like chameleons trying to adjust our color to what we hypothesize, without much justification, to be the color of other chameleons.

Zelig was in a much easier position: he did see the people around him and changed his appearance accordingly. We don’t. We are changing ourselves into something we take our community to be. But we have very little information about our (virtual) community. Trying to assimilate to people we don’t know by conforming to who we think they are is a much more serious condition than Zelig’s.

What can we do about this Zeligification? Should we all stop using social media? One of the first lines we hear from Zelig in the film is that he changed because he just “wanted to be liked”. And if he is similar to the people around him, they should like him. And the film’s somewhat cheesy resolution is that it is love – the love of the Mia Farrow character, Dr. Eudora Nesbitt Fletcher – that cures Zelig.

We all want to be liked. But in the age of social media, getting likes (or retweets) is a standard substitute for being liked. As long as we get our emotional kicks from outside the twitter sphere, there should be less pressure on us to conform. Or at least less pressure to conform to strangers who also want to conform to us.

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