Conformists Here and There


Strict societies may well maintain a biased social norm, centered on a point that is far from the average private opinion. This implies that strict societies allow for multiple equilibria, while liberal societies do not.
Very liberal societies will tend mainly to make those who privately detest [a] norm adjust to it. This will create a society that looks polarized. Less liberal societies will be more directed at getting moderates to conform and hence will look cohesive, with a concentration of stances around the norm.

This seemingly counterintuitive finding solves the puzzle of political polarization. Political polarization puzzles me because despite what both sides profess, their actual policies are eerily similar. Evidence to this is here and here. In other words, why are Americans polarized on cultural and political issues when their track record shows that they broadly want the same things? How can polarization also persist when Americans are becoming more and more conformist? To see how this finding addresses this issue, first, let's dive into conformity.

Conformity is a problem that we know has roots that stretch back developmentally. In fact, the tendency to conform is so strong that "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." This is highly significant because quite a few developmental traits persist. We also know from eyeball tests of highly individual and highly conformist countries that there are gains to being individualistic. Trying to uphold one's in-group norms is counterproductive when compared to tendencies that lead to economic growth, like cooperation. In other words, individualism is an adult trait, conformity is childish. In the United States, conformity is almost everywhere except the cryptocurrency community, where individualism, creativity, and the entrepreneurial spirit are highly valued.

The finding that the more convex (liberal) a culture, the more bimodal or unimodal the distribution of opinions, with the distribution of norms as the average opinion of a group of individuals, is illuminating. In other words, in liberal societies, there is a higher variance in expressed opinion than in embodied opinions. Applying this intuition to contemporary issues means that we highly underrate conformity on the internet and overrate conformity culturally. This means that the internet is stricter than culture is. This makes sense when you view things like Twitter and YouTube these days.

The cultural issues (or the reaction to the perceived issues) also make sense when we look at the intellectual arc of the West. Individualism, careful reasoning, and introspection are traits that color the intellectual history of the West. As a result, it is reasonable to conclude that the cultural issues of guilt we have at the moment are natural outgrowths of the West's commitment to these values - a logical result of the culture of introspection we share. More to the point, because extremely individualistic countries tend to be democratic and high in openness, those who detest certain norms the most are the ones to uphold them. This makes these societies less likely to maintain biased social standards. This means, if you are worried about conformity as a failure mode of the current system, be more bullish in the long term.

In this way, the puzzle of polarization is solved because applying their model to the United States, we can infer that the broader American society is more moderate than we readily admit. It also means that we should be long-term optimists because biased norms cannot be sustained in equilibrium.


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