The Developmental Roots of Conformity Bias

Michael Tomasello reviews theories of learning–some suggest that liberalism may be unnatural:

…a consistent finding in comparative studies is that human children are much more concerned than are other great apes to copy the exact actions of others, including arbitrary gestures, conventions and rituals (Tennie et al. 2009). Indeed, this tendency is so strong…when children do not see a clear goal to an actor’s action, they imitate even more precisely than if they do see a goal…

Moreover, children quickly learn to enforce arbitrary conventions and rituals:

…young children are so concerned with conformity that they will even enforce it on others, even when they themselves are not affected and the action involved is merely an arbitrary convention. For example, if children learn that on this table we play the game this way and on that table we play it another way, if a puppet then plays the game the wrong way on the wrong table, they intervene and stop him (Rakoczy, Hamann, Warneken, & Tomasello, 2010; Rakoczy, Warneken, & Tomasello, 2008)….Interestingly, when actors violate conventional norms, 3-year-olds admonish them more often if they are in-group rather than out-group members, presumably because in-group members should know better and be more committed to how “we” do it (Schmidt, Rakoczy, & Tomasello, 2011).

The enforcement of conformity is so important for young children that 5-year-olds have more positive feelings toward a norm enforcer (even though he is acting aggressively) than they do toward someone who simply lets a norm violation go (even though he is behaving in a neutral manner; Vaish, Herrmann, Markmann, & Tomasello, 2016).

In the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) an individual could not survive outside the group of their birth and so conformity was a matter of life and death. Conform or be cast out. Conformity to arbitrary convention was not in fact arbitrary but signalled affiliation. Conformity banded groups together.

Today, however, conformity is often counter-productive. Trying to enforce the arbitrary conventions of one’s in-group impedes social cooperation on the scale that makes modernity possible. Conformity also slows the development of new ideas and new ways of doing things–the essence of growth and progress. Even though conformity is now counter-productive the desire to conform and to enforce conformity is buried deep–the atavism of social justice.

Individualism and liberalism are foundational ideas for modernity but these adult ideas battle the desire to conform in our childish hearts.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen on twitter.


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