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Sunday, June 21, 2020

Conformity and anticonformity

Whatever the proximate cause, the Wuhan coronavirus has bequeathed to us an epidemic of intellectual suicide.

O ver the past few months, we've been inundated with stories about the Wuhan coronavirus. But there's another virus that is even more deadly than COVID-19: conformity. Conformity caused the deaths of hundreds of millions of people over the past few centuries, but there's surprisingly little scientific information about it.

Conformity is a social virus in which cultural variants—beliefs and normative rules—are transmitted by close social contact. Indeed, some researchers have used epidemiological models to explain how a cultural variant becomes endemic in a population.

Non-conformist chess pieces

An interesting alternative is the Ising spin-glass model, which was invented to explain ferro­magnet­ism. A spin glass is a large collection of individuals or magnetic particles, each of which is either in an up or down state. In a magnet, we can observe domains of up-ness and down-ness that change dynamically or even cyclically.

Last week four Israeli researchers proposed a new model [1] based on Boyd and Richerson's evolutionary population dynamics model. In its simplest terms, it takes the form

p′ = p + Fn(p)

where n is the number of role models, p and p′ are the probabilities (called frequency in the population genetics jargon) of the variant in the current and next generation, and F(p) is a rather complicated function using binomial functions derived from population genetics.

They find that if the transmission probability of some particular role model is small, two stable populations can exist, whereas if it's big, stable cyclic equilibria or even chaos can exist. Their model assumes that conformity is a genetic trait, but it works just as well if it's an acquired one. It means that as communication among groups increases, chaos and instability result.

Psychological isolation

There's anecdotal evidence that when humans are isolated from each other, they don't necessarily become anticonformist or independent thinkers. Instead, many of them cling to the safety of conform­ism even more, to the extent that they will knowingly accept false narratives in order to obtain it.

Humans have just wrapped up one of the biggest unplanned experiments of social isolation in history. The coronavirus lockdown is providing scientists with a vast amount of insight into what happens when humans are deprived of social interaction.

In the early stages, anyone who expressed an anticonformist opinion about the virus was brutally criticized and accused of wanting people to die. Some commenters even resurrected the nasty term ‘denier,’ which is a shorthand way of saying “I'm right and you're wrong, and you must agree or else.”

Tragic butter
Buttery tragedy: the Land O Lakes lady apparently drowned during the crisis, leaving not so much as a ripple

That model of conformist enforcement is now being applied to structural racism, a phenomenon assumed to exist and to be a problem for which the only solution is to erase all mention of minorities and anyone who played a role in eliminating slavery or building our democracy.

Dogmatic conformity is also evident in the attacks on the writer J.K. Rowling. After she posted a mild statement pointing out how the concept of women is being erased, she was bombarded with criticism and verbally attacked by no fewer than five of the child actors, now in their thirties, who starred in her movies. Some of them had previously expressed solidarity with feminism, but in order to conform to the latest fashion they declared that their solidarity now lies with the BLM movement.

A poignant example was the effect on Evanna Lynch, who portrayed Luna in the movies. Lynch, one of the most skillful actors of the bunch, and by all accounts a decent and lovely person, tried to make a conciliatory statement supporting both sides, but got verbally attacked anyway and, clearly stressed, deleted her Twitter account. For Internet tyrants, only absolute conformity is acceptable.

Social pressure vs social delivery of information

So far, there's not much evidence that this is caused by a direct effect of corona­virus on the brain. Rather it appears to be a psychological effect of prolonged fear and isolation. Isolation induces loneliness, to which young people are more susceptible than older ones.[2] Young people are therefore under stronger pressure to conform, and fear gives people an excuse to demand it.

Mallinson and Hatemi[3] found that 33% of individuals changed their political opinion when subjected to social delivery of information, while only 10% changed it in response to information and 10% changed it in response to social pressure. People conform from a desire to be liked or to be right[4] and psychological experiments have demonstrated that they will conform to the group even if they believe the group opinion is wrong.

Political activists are currently demanding conformity to their ideas. Conforming to their demands reduces the hate and social pressure that is exerted against you, but it has a high price: conforming is a betrayal of your own mind. Conforming destroys your sense of agency and self-respect. It makes you psychologically weak and increases your susceptibility to depression. In short, fear of death leads to intellectual suicide. And for a society, it is a short path from conformity to tyranny.

Researchers are finding hints that SARS-CoV-2 may be causing neuropsychiatric disturbances including psychosis, depression, and neuromuscular dysfunction.[5] If so, these will become evident over the next few months. But the psychological damage is here now and it has been severe. Whatever we discover about how it affects the brain, what the coronavirus has bequeathed to us most of all is an epidemic of intellectual suicide.

1. Denton KD, Ram Y, Liberman U, Feldman MW (2020). Cultural evolution of conformity and anticonformity. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.2004102117 Supplementary data: https://www.pnas.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.2004102117/-/DCSupplemental.y

2. Beam CR, Kim AJ. (2020). Psychological sequelae of social isolation and loneliness might be a larger problem in young adults than older adults. Psychol Trauma. Jun 11. doi: 10.1037/tra0000774.

3. Mallinson DJ Hatemi PK (2020). The effects of information and social conformity on opinion change. Plos One 13(5):e0196600 https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0196600

4. Cialdini RB, Goldstein NJ (2004). Social influence: compliance and conformity. Annu Rev Psychol. 55, 591–621. PMID: 14744228

5. Troyer EA, Kohn JN, Hong S (2020). Are we facing a crashing wave of neuropsychiatric sequelae of COVID-19? Neuropsychiatric symptoms and potential immunologic mechanisms. Brain Behav Immun. Apr 13. pii: S0889-1591(20)30489-X. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2020.04.027. PMID: 32298803 PMCID: PMC7152874

jun 21 2020, 8:49 am

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