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Conformity can be comforting, but in the world, we live in today, it can be seemingly problematic, and borderline dangerous!

The perils of conformity

It was Tuesday. My son and I were travelling back home from the city on a train. As the train was about to reach our station, we got up from our seats and reached the doors. 

But then something happened. While my son and I were standing near the right side door, everyone else was near the left side door. My son was getting anxious looking at that as he asked, "Shouldn't we be standing on the other side?" I assured him, "No, this is the right side. Don't worry." That didn't seem to work, however. He kept looking back and forth, feeling like a misfit.

As the train entered the station a few moments later, he seemed to have calmed down. Doors opened on the right, and we were the first to alight. "So, we were standing on the right side, after all!" he exclaimed in joy. 

Conformity can be comforting, but in the world, we live in today, it can be seemingly problematic, and borderline dangerous.

In a series of experiments, Solomon Asch revealed the degree to which a person's own opinions are influenced by those of group's. Asch found that people were willing to ignore reality and give an incorrect answer to conform to the rest of the group.

In the 12 experiments on conformity he conducted, around 75% of the participants conformed to the majority view at least once. It means 75% of the people doing the study were pushed to say an answer which was clearly wrong. And it happened because of peer pressure. 

But why did the participants conform so easily? When they were interviewed after the experiment, most of them said they did not really believe their conforming answers. And yet they chose to go along with the group for fear of being ridiculed. Some said they really did believe the group's answers were correct.

The point is, it is apparent that people conform for two main reasons. Firstly, because they do want to fit in with the group. And secondly, it is because they do believe that the group is better informed than they are.

If I were to cross these findings with another theory on stupidy by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we would find something revealing.

According to Bonhoeffer, stupidity is a defect. He says that people who spend more time in solitude do not manifest this defect frequently compared to those who are often inclined or almost condemned to sociability. According to him, it implies that stupidity is perhaps less of a psychological problem and more of a sociological one. He continues that people are often made stupid under certain circumstances. Maybe they allow this to happen to themselves. It is a group phenomenon. 

We are social animals. And this very sociability is also at the base of stupidity. Many heuristics evolved over time for us to be able to navigate the world effectively. One of those heuristics is following the herd. If the information is lacking, doing what others are doing is probably the best bet. But this doesn't work all the time. In fact, herd behaviour is among the pre-eminent causes of stupidity. 

A few months ago, I wrote about "The five laws of stupidity," based on Carlo Cipolla's work. If I were to extend those five laws with three of my own, one of the laws would be...

Stupidity often arises from the lack of independent thinking, following the herd blindly, or both.

There are two more laws, and if you would like to read about them, check this article or watch the video below...

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