Conformity, Loyalty, and Group Identity

The most interesting four paragraphs I read over the weekend, from Robin Hanson (emphasis my own):

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.

Truth. I especially like his sentence about enjoying your conformity to a small group of “non-conformists” — forging one’s identity as the embattled minority is a well-established tack for activist or contrarian types. The sentence about our willingness to conform beliefs on politics to conform to a group identity also rings true. Involving yourself in a political group is a surefire way to harbor increasingly irrational views about politics.

10 comments on “Conformity, Loyalty, and Group Identity
  • Hanson overstates his case by using language like “indulging the evil pleasure of enjoying your conformity”, “poisons your mind in the process”, and “All else is the road to rationality ruin.”

    He sounds more like an embittered old Trotskyite or an Oxbridge monk than a youthful realist.

    It requires a good deal of determined self-examination to “clear your mind and emotions of group loyalties and resentments”, not to mention more abundant clear-headed leisure to indulge it than commonly available to hung-over undergrads.

    And just try to separate even the most scholastic fan from his perhaps irrational but always devoted loyalty to his chosen ball club.

    In my own salad days I might have sold the Black Panthers on the abstract beauty of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth flag if I hadn’t been too busy picking wild blueberries and fending off over-aggressive Scientologists.

    If you had asked me what it signified when I was distributing underground newspapers written by fist-clenching idealists who so predictably evolved into tenured university professors I would proudly have declared my partisanship for the Republic in Spain’s Civil War and then kindly have offered you a homemade budz bar.

    Ah, those were the days when bums in the plaza carried dogeared copies of Camus in their back pockets and a bucktoothed Hare Krishna might actually give you a brand-new edition of the Bhagavad Gita if you argued your philosophy eloquently enough.

  • “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.”

    Certainly his random subjects did not include the investor behavior in the stock market! (where herds rule)

  • I’m not sure of the value — and I can see a lot of harm — in purging yourself of all “group loyalties and resentments.” These beliefs play an important role in building community.

    If you’re a member of a particular ethnic or racial group, or gay, or have weird taste in hair/clothes/music, or like a particular sports team, these identities (and the beliefs that go with them) help create a space where you feel safe from other groups’ disdain. Sometimes this is trivial but fun (sports teams, Neal Diamond fans). Sometimes it’s crucial for your psychological health (think of a gay kid coming out).

    A lack of rationality in certain matters might make you a less skilled entrepreneur. (And this is debate-able — the key is probably not to entirely shed your biases but to be aware of them and your intellectual weaknesses when making decision.)

    But even if it reduces your rationality a bit, I think a certain charity toward your own community’s belief system is a path toward happiness. Trying to hold yourself too far outside of community (which too many coldly rational MBA-types do I think) is a prescription for isolation.

  • “Involving yourself in a political group is a surefire way to harbor increasingly irrational views about politics.”

    Indeed. I was just reading what novelist Milan Kundera said about that in 1984:

    “When the culture is reduced to politics, interpretation is concentrated completely on the political, and in the end no one understands politics because purely political thought can never comprehend political reality.”

    Groups have cultures, as do countries, of course. People need to find the biggest, deepest paradigms they can, then live their lives questioning them.

  • As Americans increasingly tend to hang out with people who act right – like them

    their/our groups become more extreme in beliefs.

    A counter-intuitive behavior to ensure belonging.

    Several studies on that and a recent book on how this trend and the behavior lead to more polarization in politics: The Big Sort.

  • If you haven’t already read it, Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter treats this topic extensively. He puts it in more economic terms though: irrationality sometimes feels good (as in when you can identify with a group) but has a cost (making poor decisions). So we are more likely to indulge in irrationality in areas where the cost is low, such as politics, where one irrational vote is extremely unlikely to change the outcome of an election.

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