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Can Rebellion Breed Conformity?

Our quest to be different actually makes us all the same, a new analysis suggests.
A merchant selling Che Guevara shirts. (Photo:

A merchant selling Che Guevara shirts. (Photo:

Whether we wear our individuality on our sleeves or it's somewhere deep in our hearts, nobody wants to be just the same as everyone else. After all, a world where everyone is cast from the same mold would be boring. Yet our collective quest for independent identities could actually lead to that world just as surely as conformity might, according to new research.

Paul Smaldino, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California-Davis, and Joshua Epstein, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, reached that conclusion in the course of asking what seems like a fairly simple question: Exactly what does it mean to want to be different? Most answers to that question are a bit vague, perhaps because quantifying the difference between one person's style, musical taste, or choice in footwear isn't exactly straightforward. They're complicated things, style, taste, and footwear.

To get some traction, Smaldino and Epstein constructed a simple, abstract model in which each person takes a position on some issue—for argument's sake, think of it as how tight your pants are. Some of us want tighter pants than average, while others want looser fits, relative to what others are currently wearing. Over time, individuals in the model adjust their fits to try to achieve their goals—to be a little bit looser or a little bit tighter relative to the average.

"Conformity of course occurs when people strive for similarity, but it evidently can also occur when people strive for distinctiveness."

Mathematical analysis and computer simulations of that model showed, remarkably, that the desire to be different can lead to conformity. In the simplest case, everyone wants to be different by the same relative degree. For example, everyone might want to have pants tighter than 90 percent of everyone else—but no tighter. Intuitively, that leads everyone to wear skinnier pants, but as the pants shrink, so too does the difference between the tightest and the loosest. Eventually, everyone's wearing the same pants.

That's not to say that conformity is the only possible outcome, but it's a surprisingly frequent one. In another simple case, Smaldino and Epstein looked at what would happen if there were just two types of people: conformists, who wanted to match the average, and a minority group of non-conformists, who wanted to be different. In most cases, the non-conformists eventually assimilated, although they did change conformists' positions, just as tight-trousered youth have shifted mainstream fashion in the past few decades. Only when people wanted to be very far outside the mainstream—think skin-tight leather in a time of loose corduroy—could non-conformists avoid such a fate.

While the model is extremely simple—and not exactly a realistic model of fashion—Smaldino and Epstein say it reveals an important lesson about social trends. "Conformity of course occurs when people strive for similarity, but it evidently can also occur when people strive for distinctiveness," they write in Royal Society Open Science. "Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised at its ubiquity."

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