Conforming isn’t just good for you, it’s good for the species. You might like to think you’re a trailblazing individual, but we’re hardwired to follow the latest trends as enthusiastically as any Japanese teenager.
“People are conformist and that’s a good thing for cultural evolution,” says Michael Muthukrishna of the University of British Columbia, the author of a new study published in Evolution and Human Behavior told UBC News. “By being conformist, we copy the things that are popular in the world. And those things are often good and useful.”
His example is that of washing hands. Everyone knows they should wash their hands after dirty activity, even if they don’t know a thing about germs. In this case, conforming is the healthy thing to do. Another example would be food. Sticking with culturally tested foods pretty much guarantees safety. That’s not so important when we buy everything from the supermarket, but for hunters and foragers, it’s life or death.
“Our whole world is made up of things that we do that are good for us, but we don’t know why,” says Muthukrishna. “And we don’t need to know why. We just need to know that most people do those things.”
The downside of this is the kind of non-thinking bigotry we see in the world every day, but there’s good news. In his paper, Muthukrishna says that people with higher IQs are more independent thinkers. Smarter people are more likely to make their own decisions, but only when they’re well-informed–if they don’t have a good answer for a certain situation, they’re actually more likely to follow the consensus view than the average person.
Interestingly, “status, cultural background, and personality, were not predictive” of conformist behavior. That is, Muthukrishna’s study shows that intelligence and education are what governs independent thought and action.
Sometimes, though, our culture throws up something so universally correct that it can’t be ignored, no matter how smart you are. Exhibit A: Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off.”