Sunday August 02, 2015

Forget individuality: it's smarter to conform

Is it smarter to follow the pack?

Is it smarter to follow the pack? (Wang Wenlan/China Daily/Reuters)

Follow your own path, march to the beat of your own drum, go your own way... We've all heard the advice to be an individual. But new research says that following the pack is the way to go.

Michael Muthukrishna is a recent psychology PhD grad from the University of British Columbia. He co-authored a study published in the journal "Evolution and Human Behaviour" about why conformity is a good thing.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.    

Why is it advantageous to follow the pack?
We live in a world of cell phones, of the internet, of self-driving cars and the reason that we live in that world is because information has accumulated generation by generation to the point where not even the smartest among us could recreate the world we live in. Today, our smarts our acquired, not hardwired. So the question is where do we acquire those smarts? And one place that we can acquire them is from the majority.

With all of the pressure out there to be different, how do you reconcile your findings with that societal pressure to 'go it alone'?
I think the fact that societal pressure exists is a testament to the fact that most people are conformists, which is what we found; you wouldn't need that pressure if most people weren't conformists. If there's any lesson in here at all, it's that it pays to try to expose yourself to as much information as possible, but recognize that one of the sources of information is the majority behaviour. You shouldn't be afraid to conform, if you're unsure, because quite often the majority is correct.

We should go our way when we have a good reason to do so and not for the sake of going our own way. - Michael Muthukrishna

But how does humanity evolve, how do we innovate, without trying new things?
We're used to thinking about innovations as being a product of great men and women from the past who have developed these things and passed them down, generation by generation. But if you actually look at the historical record, it's astounding the number of inventions that aren't actually attributable to one person: Darwin and Wallace both arriving at the theory of evolution by natural selection [for example]... These innovations are an emergent property of individuals conforming to each other, socially learning and passing information on.