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.


I am a great believer in human nature, and the whole idea that it emerges from a deep evolutionary background, but I would balk at the idea that simian or even child studies could be so easily applied to modern political division.

From the abstract it doesn't look like the original authors make that mistake, it looks like they apply child development to child development.

The great mistake of liberalism is to think that some individualism and liberty was good, so more is always better. There are limits to the social utility of libertarianism. But libertarians think collective feeling is an atavism. Human cooperation and state capacity are based on judicious feelings of patriotism and tribalism, without which rules like liberal property rights would not be sustainable. Moreover, like progressives, libertarians think that limits on immigration are wrong even when it is demonstrably the case that some groups still have strong group feeling and are even hostile to those they should be grateful to for letting them in. But libertarians chafe at social rules that have evolved spontaneously over thousands of years and ignore Hayek's ideas when it comes to politics and social convention while extolling them in economics.

I dont think anything you said about libertarians is correct.

I didn't see any word beginging with "poli-" in the original post. While the first line was confusing, it is clear that here "liberal" is meant in the classical, literal, non-American sense of "inclined to let people do stuff".



Not sure if the allusion was intentional.

Tabarrok grew up in a Toronto subdivision.

I'm not sure that's a good example. The uniformity of houses in a subdivision doesn't result from residents independently deciding to build houses that look alike because they want to conform to community norms but from a developer building a large number houses quickly using common designs to save money and following the popular fashions of the moment in time when all the houses are built.

You're missing the reference to arguably the best Rush song ever.

I suppose you could argue that. To roughly the same extent that you could argue Rush was better with their original drummer.

Seems an interesting study and result, but the conclusion that innate desires for conformity are a pure enemy of progress and growth isn't obvious to me. After all we rely very strongly on workers buying into company norms, protocols and procedures, and the link between learning/training and conforming could be strong too. The payoff of this behaviour may be like an immune system -- too strong, and you destroy yourself, but too weak and the whole thing falls apart.

Looking around at adults, it seems apparent that the tension between individual and group nature is productive.

If one side ever "won" it would be the end for the species.

If one side was obviously right, I think we would have figured it out by now.

The old right and old left were both highly communitarian. 'Liberalism' is a comparatively new phenomenon -- as this post suggests, I don't think it's natural, but it is intellectually appealing -- but is fairly critiqued from both left and right as potentially leading to atomistic individualism. I think people need something bigger than just themselves to live for, but I can't yet bring myself to throw my lot in with anything beyond my own extended family. It's tricky.

I don't know. Indian princes freed the slaves and declared freedom of religion 4000 years ago or whenever. I worry that freedom and liberalism might be more cyclical than we know.

This. There may be an optimal level of conformity that clearly is not zero. How much? How can it be measured?

Optimal for whom or what?

There is certainly a level of conformity that is required for collegial relationships in academia. Professors Tabarrock and Cowen, for all their blogging and external successes, value these collegial relationships and the job security that they promote. If this means following the pervasive progressive line that conservatism is counter-productive, and that all liberties other than those advance by conservatives are enlightened and lead to social justice and prosperity for all, then they will bend their interpretations of the data in that direction. It's all about signaling, after all.

Maybe, but isn't it more plausible that Tabarrok and Cowan have internalized the values of their colleagues, and genuinely believe that conservatism is counterproductive? The three- and five-year-olds in the study aren't cynical climbers; they are sincere in their desire to enforce group norms. Why would the typical econ professor be any different?

What do you guys think of Bart Simpson?

I Do What I Feel Like

Individualism or Satanism? -> Me, myself and I, let the other pay the bill...

By the same logic, we should be wary of efforts to force too much diversity, individualism, and tolerance on an unprepared and unwilling population. The harder you push against human nature, the harder it eventually bites you back. The trick is to push against it slowly, and, most importantly, know when to stop. Remember: half the population has below average IQ, and not all of them are small children.

That sounds correct. The left thinks we're infinitely malleable, while the right thinks we should accept our nature.

The Serenity Prayer comes to mind.

Half the commenters on this blog have below average IQ relative to the rest of the commenters on this blog.

Maybe relative to the general population too, if weighted by volume of comments.

"Remember: half the population has below average IQ"

This is a popular clever line but makes no actual sense. The practical implication of this statement is that there exist no persons who can be classified as being of "average intelligence" -- but, of course, most people are of "average intelligence."

How do you get liberalism out of all this? The folks trying to jail people for failure to conform in NC aren't liberals.

I'm not aware of any of my liberal friends who want grown men in the bathroom with their 10 year old daughters. It's mostly a pretty fringe movement.

Of course some conformity is good but you are all missing Tabarrok's point that the desire we have for conformity was optimized for thr EEA not modernity.

Tabarrok's point is that he smarter than God and Mother Nature combined.

Did he measure it on his Conformo-Meter? What was the reading?

Conformity is the flip side of acceptance/approval. People really do want to be accepted/approved by the tribe: in ancient times, rejection could mean death. Tomasello is presenting acceptance/approval in the context of politics, but it's even stronger in the context of religion. And I'm not just referring to Islam and the sectarian divide that is tearing the middle east apart, for the history of Christianity is a history of sectarianism and the threat of being rejected by God for having a "false" belief. It's particularly evident in the Gospel of John and Letters of John, which form the basis for the religion we recognize as Christianity. And it's particularly evident in today's evangelical churches, where one is either in or out, a true believer or not, with no room for compromise. The threat of rejection may be strong in politics, but it's nothing compared to the threat of rejection in religion, where eternity rides in the balance. Politics and religion: they are like peanut butter and jelly.

Your first sentence is spot-on and then you lose me. There's no reason to assume that a child's desire for acceptance/approval carries any implications to adult religious or political behavior. The motivations in each case can, and very definitely are, quite different.

Conformity is equally required in leftist congregations. The churches have divided along the lines of the political polarization generally. It's just that the leftist congregations don't believe as strongly in the eternal reward/punishment system, so they favor expulsion in the here and now. They have to maintain the ideological purity of the tribe. This is not done explicitly, but through social shaming.

Actually, I am not referring to political differences within Christianity (or Islam for that matter) but doctrinal differences, the failure to believe a particular orthodoxy considered heresy. In times past, heretics might be excluded if not stoned (the ancient practice among Jews) or burned to death; today, being stoned or burned to death for failure to believe a particular orthodoxy isn't practiced in the Jewish or Christian religion, although it is among certain extremists in Islam, where the price for non-conformity is indeed high.

If conformism is so deeply built into us, does it really mean, as Alex seems to think, that we should fight against it for the sake of progress and efficiency? Or does it mean that we should shape our societies in such a way that people can satisfy their need to conform?

People like eating sugary foods because of evolutionary reasons so we allow them to eat them and run whole industries only to produce sugary foods. People like having sex for evolutionary reasons and while there has historically been some effort to restrict it, the modern liberal view towards sex is rather positive. But somehow, if people like to conform because of evolutionary reasons, we should be ashamed of it and reduce it any way we can?

I don't see why you think conformism is the opposite of liberalism. Certainly modern "liberals" in America are some of the most conformist people around. They mob people who dare to dissent, they suppress speech they don't want to hear, and they slavishly adore their idiot god-king. If anything, these findings about conformism explain modern liberals all too well.

Liberal and conservative are almost useless terms today.

I am conservative because I liberally allow you to decide how to live your life and let you keep your money and spend it as you decide.

The hard left has ALWAYS been disdainful of individual rights. The left in America, for the most part, has never been hard left. Modern progressives are trying to change that.

Everyone wants to see their enemy as a monolithic blob. But there are still lots of liberals in America who are horrified by the hard left. Reasonable people. Like Scott Alexander.

Americans use the word liberal in a different way to the rest of the world. In most of the world liberal is close in meaning to libertarian in America. The Liberal party in Australia is the major right wing party. The Liberal party in the UK was recently in a right wing coallition government.

Liberalism meaning libertarian was the original meaning. Americans had to invent libertarianism when the word liberalism came to be used by lefties who didn't want to be called socialist.

This article is using liberalism in its original sense.

I agree though that conformty is required for any group belief system, even one that places importance on individual choice and freedom - ."You are all individuals." "Yes, we are all individuals." "I'm not."

Shorter version of paper: Rambo, Superman, Batman, Marvel comic characters etc are more popular than Kofi Annan, Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Ban Ki-moon for six year olds, and (Straussian reading) Trump supporters.

I would have thought the Straussian reading came in with mentioning UN leaders in the same sentence as six year olds.

Copying is, I believe, evolutionarily engrained, especially for children as a part of learning. They mimic everything. So, for example, do not smoke around children, do not treat people like garbage around children, etc. But I think as you get beyond the period of development where you've mastered the basics of language, how to navigate basic cultural stuff, etc., there is development of the individual and I think basically everyone has a strong desire to demonstrate their individuality (at least to a degree) in addition to wanting to fit in (at least to a degree).

Very interesting results. But if you're going to overstate the innate desire of humans to conform (to a degree), you could hardly do better than to study young children.

It would be interesting to contrast this finding with a discussion of "the discovery of NO", around the age of two. I think a strong case for leading by example and innate anti-hypocrisy preferences would be a likely outcome.

Yep, you nailed it.

The way various religions have persecuted heretics and apostates over the years tells me something different. Likewise, totalitarian societies like the USSR and Mao's China would not have been possible without hearty doses of conformity among adults. My suspicion is that a lot of people don't ever lose their innate desires to conform to certain group norms and forcing others to do so as well; they just get more sophisticated about it as they get older, cloaking their desires in noble-sounding rhetoric about "offenses against the will of God" or "undermining the revolution," etc.

Maybe. But I'm inclined to attribute that to alternating combinations of intimidation, brainwashing and planned chaos (Stalin and some Mao years). There was nothing natural about any of that. Along the lines of differences in quantity having a quality unto themselves.

In places I've been where there's the least exposure to foreigners, or even much exposure to the "modern world", I haven't faced hostility, but rather intense curiosity (although on at least a few occasions there was clearly some scheming by a few to figure out when they might make off with my stuff, although I never felt my person was in danger). Then again, there's the whole theory of the "narcissism of small differences". In such a situation I'm so different that there's not much point of reference to start quibbling about details and huge differences are written off as "man those outsider people have some strange ways". But then you get situations where people who say tomayto and people who say tomahto are unlikely to make it past the first date, or where people immediately hate anyone who wears their baseball cap tilted to the wrong angle, etc.

It takes a specific type of cultural development that leads to the dehumanization of others. Perhaps this can be framed in terms of the aspects of our nature, whether as individuals or clans, and how this all comes together in large nations as a potential for such things. But it does not happen on its own. Someone who wants power over people basically has to be whipping or intimidating people into a frenzy for that.

On the case of the church, consider this argument that it's maybe not so much about our innate nature (although clearly aspects of our innate nature make this all possible). The church's authority was based on you having to do EXACTLY ABCDEFG or you get an eternity in hell (unless you tell the local priest all your dirtiest secrets and ask for forgiveness). If you (or the church) fail to demonize those who are even just a little different, then the whole basis of the extensive authority over the public and private lives of individuals starts to come crashing down. In the case where the demonized others are at play, then all it takes is someone who sees profit or power in conquest, killing others in the out-group, or merely the ability to manipulate their way into more power or money, by playing on these tensions.

"Individualism and liberalism are foundational ideas for modernity..." They are? More so than the "ideas" of collectivism and conservatism? And what do you mean by "modernity"? Sex trafficking? Drone strikes? Ted? Bernie? Trump? Kim, Kourtney and Khloe? but I digress...

As a biologist by training I support mixing the study of evolution with economics and political science. However I don't support making such broad and unsupported conclusions based on narrow studies like this. Yikes!

I can't speak to political overtones of this finding, but it sure squares with my own experience. Especially as a child I never understood anything that was going on, so I would mimic others behavior to an uncanny degree. Eventually I was able to learn about the motications, themes, memes, etc., behind the actions of others, their traditions, etc., and that liberated me to be more true to the spirit of the law than the letter.

Yeah, fake it till you make it. The bootstrapping process of human development is quite extraordinary. It's like "OK, I'm here. Where do I begin?" "Everywhere."

"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."

That doesn't exactly match up with social cognitive theory.

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