Why People Conform

Despite costs to individual liberty, we comply with whims of groups.

Posted Apr 10, 2019

Social psychologists found people highly susceptible to social influences as demonstrated by classic experiments in obedience and conformity. Why might we be so malleable?

One intriguing clue is offered by subsistence ecology, specifically the transition to agriculture.

The Ecology of Conformity

Personal autonomy was very important to humans in hunter-gatherer societies (1). Agricultural societies emphasized obedience to authority figures.

The individuality of hunter-gatherers may be illustrated by the willingness of women to engage in many extramarital relationships despite the fact that these sometimes brought them a great deal of trouble (2).

Hunter-gatherer defense of egalitarian principles is reflected in their political structure that is exceptionally flat. Each forager group typically has a single headman, or head woman, who has few perks of office and spends a lot of time resolving other people's interpersonal disputes.

Male hunters are highly individualistic because they must often rely upon their own skill, and endurance in bringing down large game animals, even though hunting is a group activity (3).

Matters are very different in subsistence agriculture where success in farming is usually determined by adherence to time-honored practices of cultivation and crop rotation. Children must also stick by their parents for many years if they wish to acquire land ownership or farming rights. For this reason, agricultural societies emphasize respect for elders and obedience to time-honored traditions.

It is no accident that religious zealotry is most likely to be found in agricultural societies where the individual is raised to accept the views and beliefs of the community without question. Such conformist tendencies may facilitate inculcation in close-knit groups from warrior castes to religious communes.

Costly Groups Like Communes and Warrior Castes

Members of some groups conform to very exacting demands. Some religious sects expect their members to give up all of their property upon joining. Others prescribe inconvenient dress styles. So Hassidic Jews sweat out the summer wearing clothes that would be more suited to a Russian winter.

Why do members concede to so many apparently unreasonable requirements?

One clue is provided by research on historical communes. Those having more requirements of members were found to last longer. This suggests that the high price of admittance increased group cohesion (4).

Other evidence shows that the more people are required to invest in a group, the more connected to that group they feel, and the more likely they are to behave altruistically towards fellow members. For example, Muslims who attend worship regularly are more likely to approve of religious martyrdom (5).

A similar logic extends to many other groups from discussion groups to warrior castes. Warriors sometimes undergo grueling initiation ceremonies in which they must follow stringent rules of conduct and agree to undergo painful tests such as scarification or ritual circumcision. Warrior groups having the largest costs of membership involving conformity to a string of arbitrary rules and privations also identify most strongly with their warrior group (6).

Behavioral conformity is often possible without any depth or sincerity. Many religions impose the further requirement of conforming to a detailed belief system that often bears a tenuous connection with reality. For example, Christians expect their members to accept that the communion wine turns into blood prior to being consumed. Why do rational people go along with beliefs that defy what we know about the natural world?

Religious Conformity as a Contract

Perhaps believers believe what they do because they are obliged to do so. In some Islamic countries, disbelief is criminalized as a capital offense, even if the death sentence is rarely carried out. Similarly, changing one's religion is theoretically punishable by death. Such customs seem draconian in a pluralistic society but are less objected to in a world of religious homogeneity. In earlier times, Christian “heretics” were burned at the stake for seemingly minor theological divergences.

Conformity of belief is analogous to conforming with ritual obligations of a religion. In other words, it is another cost of membership. Just as members agree to prescribed customs and ritual obligations, they also sign on to an entire system of beliefs.

It is as though they had entered a contract according to which they implicitly agreed to believe what the group in general believes, however far fetched, implausible, or scientifically dubious. By this reasoning, belief in what seems highly improbable to outsiders is a test of commitment to the religion.

If conformity to a religion has disturbingly irrational elements, the same issue is often raised in connection with political partisanship.

Political Conformity

Conformity to the beliefs of political parties has many parallels with acceptance of religious beliefs. In some cases, political affiliation affects how religious people say they are such as conservatives placing greater importance in religious views than liberals do. They also emphasize family ties and tradition and stress social conformity and obedience to authority (7,8).

In an earlier post, I suggested that these differences are predicated on varied approaches to securing investment by older generations in children.

There are several reasons that being close to family members might favor reproductive success. One is that senior family members may control resources, such as land, or property, that go preferentially to children who stay close by.

If conservatives are more likely to conform to social expectations and to focus on their in-groups, liberals are more open to social diversity and new experiences. This means that they are attracted to a more bohemian way of life and more unconventional career paths, such as being artists and writers.

Artists and Eccentrics

Artists share with eccentrics a willingness to break the mold and behave differently from earlier generations and other people more generally.

They often may do so because they are rather socially detached. This is frequently because they experience diversity early in their lives, whether due to immigration, gender identity, illness, or other influences that make them see the world as substantially different from the mainstream of society.

They do not conform to their beliefs, habits, and sensibility. That is an important key to creativity and we all benefit from their escaping the pressure to conform, often in bohemian communities that accept them.

References

1 Boehm, C. (2000). Hierarchy in the forest. Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press.

2 Shostak, M. (1981). Nisa: The life and words of a !Kung woman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

3 Berry, J. W. (1967). Independence and conformity in subsistence-level societies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 7, 415-418.

4 Sosis, R., and Bressler, E. R. (2003). Cooperation and commune longevity: A test of the costly signaling theory of religion. Cross- Cultural Research, 37, 211-239.

5 Sosis, R., and Ruffle, (2003). Religious ritual and cooperation: Testing for a relationship on Israeli religious and secular kibbutzim. Current Anthropology, 44, 713-722.

6 Cialdini, R. (1988). Influence: Science and practice (2nd Ed.). Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman.

7 Tuschman, A. (2013).Our political nature: The evolutionary origins of what divides us. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

8 Garcia, H. (2019). Sex, power, and partisanship. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.