The Conundrum of Conforming

One of the primary reasons that human society works is that humans have a strong instinct for conforming. We place an inordinate unspoken emphasis on it.

It the reason most people in a region dress in a generally identical way. You will notice that as our society became more global our conforming has made more and more societies begin to blend their customary dress into a big global conforming behavior.

It’s important. Its why we get along. Because people conform to accepted behaviors, we respond when someone speaks to us, we wait in lines and we stop at traffic lights. We do that because that is what is normal and we conform to normal.

When someone doesn’t conform we feel a sort of instinctive offense at this behavior. And because it is so deeply ingrained in our psyches to conform to norm, we highlight the person with various punitive rituals – in schoolyards they get bullied, in churches they get shamed, in the media they become the subject of endlessly pointless arguments or ridicule.

We build up IMPORTANT reasons for conformity. We attach words like respect or patriotism or decency to these ideas of conformity. But those things are also just made up ideas that we created to support conformity. Only rarely do we attach laws to conformity when nonconformity will create unreasonable harm.  Mostly we support our instinct to conform with ideas.

For example, we made up the idea of patriotism so that people would be willing to die for their country.  So that they would identify themselves with where they live. So they would stand during anthems and salute flags. So that they would Conform.

When people don’t conform we have an emotional reaction. And then we reach for all the ideas that have been raised over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years to support conforming.

But it’s important to remember – many of those reasons are merely ephemera. Ideas that we give weight to because they have lived with us for so long. Ideally these ideas support conforming behaviors that have group advantage. But not always.

Sometimes someone doesn’t conform to highlight where an idea that supports the conformity is no longer viable or never should have been viable. Rosa Parks comes to mind. Breaking conformity is a powerful use of our conforming bias. It makes everyone stop and notice. It makes everyone discuss the ideas that support conforming and question them.

Sometimes people don’t conform to make a statement about a different issue entirely. This is probably a mistake. Because what happens is that people will talk about the non-conformity. The offense of it, or the right to do it. They will debate the ideas that support conforming. But they won’t discuss the separate issue that this intentional nonconformity is supposed to highlight.

Because the conformity is the thing we all instinctively understand. A thing we all participate in. And we all feel justified in having an opinion. We won’t be diverted. So as a way to highlight a different issue – it won’t work well. It’s just too many steps away from the conformity issue and the monkey in our brains won’t pay attention. We are busy discussing the break in conformity.

2 thoughts on “The Conundrum of Conforming

  1. Your concept of “conforming” is really wide here. I think of conforming in terms of giving up some part of one’s individuality/self in order to fit it. But some of the behaviors you mention here have more to do with self-interest or even of self-preservation. Stopping at traffic lights is one example. And with Rosa Parks – I assume that before she took her stand, she had sat in the back or given up her seat many times – and certainly not to conform, but due to coercion or threat. Ironically, her act of defiance meant ending the self-preservation behavior. She was “conforming” to the way people used to white privilege would act . . .

    Liked by 1 person

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