“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.”— Rollo May
“In America, through pressure of conformity, there is freedom of choice, but nothing to choose from.”— Peter Ustinov
“Surveillance breeds conformity.”— Glenn Greenwald
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect. “— Mark Twain
“Sanity is not truth. Sanity is conformity to what is socially expected. Truth is sometimes in conformity, sometimes not.”— Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
“The individual has always to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe.”— Friedrich Nietzsche
During a recent speech in the House of Representatives made by Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, Hoyer claimed that the Republican Party should not criticize the Biden administration during wartime. “It is unfortunate that in a time of war, we spend all the time blaming our own president,” said Hoyer.
Wartime? We are at war? With whom? Who knew?
Oh yes, there is that Ukraine happening, which may or may not be an official “war”, but most of us seem to be going about our daily activities despite the usual and varied disruptions. And even “war”. We cope, we adapt, we manage.
There have always been wars of some kind around. Unless you happen to be standing a bit too close to ground-zero, these “wars” are mostly distractions and inconveniences.
We all mostly get along. Yes, there are riots and protests as always, but these are generally of local concern. Our days for the most part are routine and uneventful. Exactly what is this “get along” magic formula that facilitates our relatively calm existence?
Go along to get along
It appears that to “get along”, which is a desired result, one must practice “go along” behaviors as much as possible. And what just are these?
- To conform to general expectations so as not to disrupt or endanger one’s sense of security or belonging.
- To conform in order to have acceptance and security.
- To agree with others or do what they want in order to preserve harmony.
To agree or conform? This seems to mean that our largely placid daily lives rely heavily on our ability and willingness to agree, conform, go along, in some sense.
We are it seems mostly quite agreeable people
How can this possibly be when you look at the “news”? Well, of course placid and agreeable people are really not grist for the “news” machine, and have probably never been. Explosions, riots, disasters, and the like capture people’s attention and are thus all that gets reported. Placid, routine stuff is simply uninteresting. Even boring.
“Agreeable” people in this sense are what keeps the world chugging along despite localized disturbances and nastiness. No surprise here, yes?
As always, the devil is in the details.
In the “get along” behaviors listed above, the word “conform”, or its implication, appears in each one. That is, our “agreement” in general is a willingness to behave, not as we might like to, but as our peers and leaders are behaving or telling us to behave. If these reference behaviors are dictated or regulated, then the operative behavioral term is “compliance”.
Conform is mostly voluntary, while compliance is mostly forced (involuntary).
So, our apparent agreeableness is fundamentally a willingness to conform or to comply, as each situation requires.
This certainly doesn’t sound much like “freedom”, but of course “freedom” has always been a context-dependent, flexible, and limited scope of allowed behavior.
Why should this be?
“Agreement” is fundamentally instinctual, built-in
Man is a herd animal by nature. Man is a tribal animal by nature. Man is a family animal by nature. These instinctual behaviors are critical to long-term survival of most animals. Survival is top of the importance list for both animals and humans.
Herding can be defined as the phenomenon of individuals deciding to follow others, especially a group-acknowledged leader, and imitating group behaviour rather than deciding independently and individually on the basis of their own, private information. That is, group members generally prefer group-led behavior rather than independent behavior – so-called “freedom”. Even “freedom” in practice is nearly always significantly constrained, and probably often influenced to a good degree by group-led behaviors.
Our complex world increasingly requires coordination and collaboration
Doing your own thing – not going-along-to-get-along – is becoming much more difficult than it used to be in the good old days. Much of the world requires subordination of individual preferences and desires just to be able to make our complex world function acceptably.
Etienne de la Boetie, a French magistrate, classicist, writer, poet, and political theorist, in 1577 published (clandestinely) “The Politics of Obedience: Discourse on Voluntary Servitude” while he was still in university. The one statement that particularly grabbed me in reading this short book was this: “Thus custom becomes the first reason for voluntary servitude.”
By “custom”, he meant a combination of upbringing, training, and gradual submersion in the practices and thoughts required by the leadership. Servitude is not slavery but largely voluntary conformity, and, in the end, compliance or obedience. This occurs over periods of many years, and often begins in childhood.
Becoming gradually accustomed to, and accepting of, practices and situations that might appear to an outside observer as “servitude” is very common. Just think of what we now accept since COVID entered the scene. A decade or two ago, these would have been unthinkable for most people.
“A weakness characteristic of human kind is that we often have to obey force; we have to make concessions; we ourselves cannot always be the stronger.”Etienne de la Boetie
The Abilene Paradox
Not all people it seems go-along-to-get-along willingly. They push back a little, where they can, but ultimately decide to go along.
Dale Hartley in Psychology Today wrote “The Abilene Paradox: Why People Go Along to Get Along”:
“Jerry B. Harvey, who years later became a professor of management at The George Washington University. In 1974, he recounted the story in an article entitled, ‘The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement.’”
“The Abilene paradox sounds like groupthink, doesn’t it? And it is similar—but with one important difference: In groupthink, the collective individuals actually agree with each other, both privately and collectively. The Abilene paradox describes a situation in which the members privately disagree with the collective unanimous decision. In short, groupthink members are voting their conscience while Abilene ‘paradoxers’ are not.”
“Whether in social situations or in an organizational context, going along to get along arises from a desire to avoid conflict and a reluctance to be seen as the ‘spoiler’ who criticizes ideas and plans that others favor. The choice to follow one’s conscience or go against it to please the group produces cognitive dissonance (which requires some character and discipline to overcome) and could involve personal risk—to relationships or career or both.”
Psychology weighs in on conformity
Conformity, which lies at the voluntary end of the go-along-to-get-along spectrum, has not escaped the attention of psychologists, as you would expect. An especially interesting set of experiments brings up a quite different aspect on how conformity actually works in social groups:
Kendra Cherry writing in verywellmind.com summarized “The Asch Conformity Experiments”:
“The Asch conformity experiments were a series of psychological experiments conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s. The experiments revealed the degree to which a person’s own opinions are influenced by those of a group. Asch found that people were willing to ignore reality and give an incorrect answer in order to conform to the rest of the group.”
“The Asch conformity experiments are among the most famous in psychology’s history and have inspired a wealth of additional research on conformity and group behavior.”
“Research suggests that people are often much more prone to conform than they believe they might be.”
“In psychological terms, conformity refers to an individual’s tendency to follow the unspoken rules or behaviors of the social group to which they belong. Researchers have long been curious about the degree to which people follow or rebel against social norms.”
“Asch was interested in looking at how pressure from a group could lead people to conform, even when they knew that the rest of the group was wrong. The purpose of the Asch conformity experiment was to demonstrate the power of conformity in groups.”
“Nearly 75% of the participants in the conformity experiments went along with the rest of the group at least one time. After combining the trials, the results indicated that participants conformed to the incorrect group answer approximately one-third of the time.”
“Conformity tends to increase when more people are present. However, there is little change once the group size goes beyond four or five people. Conformity also increases when the task becomes more difficult. In the face of uncertainty, people turn to others for information about how to respond.”
“Conformity increases when other members of the group are of a higher social status. When people view the others in the group as more powerful, influential, or knowledgeable than themselves, they are more likely to go along with the group.”
“Conformity tends to decrease, however, when people are able to respond privately. Research has also shown that conformity decreases if people have support from at least one other individual in a group.”
So, we really are all agreeable – but only within the active conform-comply context
I don’t know about you but this highly-qualified “agreeable” definition seems to me more like degrees of go-along-to-get-along coercion than anything truly voluntary. It gives me the message of conform or comply – or else. The “or else” implied here is serious and generally quite powerful.
The great majority will I’m afraid opt for the safe or easy way out: conform or comply, even if done to the least extent possible and with no great enthusiasm.
It might be good at this point to recall de la Boetie’s observation that “custom becomes the first reason for voluntary servitude”. Custom here means training, slow exposure to, experience with, message reinforcement, and similar “encouragements”.
Our herd behavior heritage makes these encouragements very hard for most people to resist. Much easier to “go with the flow”, as they say somewhere. Who needs more hassles?
By this steady, relentless, accustomization process, de la Boetie argues, people can become accepting of almost anything. This defines and reinforces a “new normal” almost imperceptibly.
Encouragements? Ed Bernays was the master
You do of course know who good old Ed Bernays was. From Wikipedia:
“Edward Louis Bernays was an American theorist, considered as pioneer in the field of public relations and propaganda, referred to in his obituary as “the father of public relations”. Bernays was named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life.”
Sigmund Freud was his uncle. Anna Freud (Freud’s sister) was his mother. Among Ed’s books were such gems as:
- Crystalizing Public Opinion (1923)
- Propaganda (1928)
- Public Relations (1945)
- The Engineering of Consent (1947)
“Engineering of Consent”? Is this aimed at making us all more agreeable in terms of conforming and complying? Of course. Encouragements for sure.
The Conversation has an interesting overview of Bernays and his enormous influence: “The manipulation of the American mind: Edward Bernays and the birth of public relations”:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
Bernays seminal book “Propaganda” (1928) over time gave the term “propaganda” a somewhat pejorative connotation. Which Bernays fixed by rebranding it “public relations”.
“Today we might call what Bernays pioneered a form of branding, but at its core it represents little more than a particularly brazen set of techniques to manipulate people to get them to do your bidding.”
Some telling Bernays quotes:
“Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”— Edward Bernays
“Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. ”— Edward Bernays
“The three main elements of public relations are practically as old as society: informing people, persuading people, or integrating people with people.”— Edward Bernays
“In our present social organization approval of the public is essential to any large undertaking.”— Edward Bernays
“People want to go where they wanted to be led.”— Edward Bernays
“As civilization has become more complex, and as the need for invisible government has been increasingly demonstrated, the technical means have been invented and developed by which opinion may be regimented.”— Edward Bernays
This whole topic, as you might well imagine, gets extremely wild very quickly as you dig further into it. For the purposes of this post, this seems like a good point to wrap it up.
It seems pretty clear that “all of us” are indeed quite agreeable, but only in the rather coercive context of go-along-to-get-along. Agree, conform (to the group will), or comply to the dictates of our powers that be (do what you’re told). To some extent, the need to achieve broad agreement (context-dependent) on many matters is essential to keep our complex world running smoothly. Unrelenting propaganda is also vital to shaping, coordinating, and “encouraging” the widest possible “agreement”.
Couldn’t find much on this topic that was not either heavily inflammatory or part of the narrative being pitched today. Media has an abundance of such material.