It’s absurd to me that someone would vote a certain way because their parents did; but no less that they would only vote contrary to them (extrapolate broadly).
When the impetus for decision-making is based on pushing against something for the sake of it, conformity and rebellion look remarkably alike.
This pattern works its way out differently — parents give way to friends, bosses, or even ideas but we still have —
- The desire to differentiate ourselves; and
- The desire to belong.
Although this may be in sharper focus during certain developmental phases (the famed teenage years) the process continues through life.
It goes without saying that something isn’t true just because someone tells us it is, even if we love and respect that person. This is regardless of whether it’s a fact or a set of values.
Knowledge evolves. What we know at any one point in time is limited by the questions we ask, the assumptions we make and the tools that are available for assessing them.
We must look at ideas we’ve absorbed — re-evaluate and re-accept some or reject others. This is not a one-off event as we are continually impacted by new experiences, information and evidence.
Sometimes we reluctantly go along with convention for the sake of approval (obviously I am talking about societies in which we’re to free question it).
Standing out can come at a cost, including of exclusion. For some, that cost is too high. The pain of being obstracised is real and can be deeper and longer lasting than physical injury. The same part of the brain that registers physical pain, also feels social injury.
While on the face of it rebellion is the opposite (resisting convention) it can be driven by the same impulse for acceptance. When one convention is unquestioningly exchanged for another the outcome is ‘belonging by accepting others’ rules’, a rebellion into conformity.
‘Unquestioningly’ is key. It’s vital to maintain an open mind and healthy systems encourage it. It’s the all-in-or-all-out, for-us-or-against-us thinking that is really dangerous.
It may look different on the outside, but that’s all it is —
- You can wear your jeans below the hips or belted at the waist — it’s about the look.
- You can sound as if you’re on an obscure sub-Reddit or have swallowed an MBA textbook — it’s still about communication, either creating a shared language or a wall.
- You can be an activist carping about corporates or vice versa— it’s still about drawing the circle around who’s in and out — standard in-out group behaviour.
This tendency to create in-groups need not be problematic.
We are social animals and have always formed tribes; networks provide support and contribute to wellbeing. Some scientists suggest this ability to form alliances and collaborate may even underpin our success as a species.
What’s problematic is assuming our tribe has an inherently higher or lower worth than another.
Bloom says bias can be natural, rational and even moral but that it’s vital to understand how our own biases work so we can take control when they go wrong.
Excluding or punishing others because they are ‘not like us’ is damaging.
So how do we manage this?
- Be aware of it.
- Challenge existing beliefs (not because we are resisting others but because we are trying to be more conscious of what they are).
- Consider ways to expand the in-group. Neuroscientist Marcelle Kinsbourne believes the expansion of the conceptual in-group could expand our range of friendly, supportive and altruistic behavior.
Challenging conventions in a considered way helps us individuate and maintain a sense of belonging at the same time. This can be difficult for a couple of reasons —
- We are largely unaware of what drives us in the first place. Consciously accessible information is rarely the central factor controlling our behavior. Even knowing about a bias, often considered half the battle when it comes to change, may not according to Professors Santos and Gendler on Edge be sufficient to overcome bias.
- Once we’ve formed a bias we filter information that does not support it even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
A way to overcome that is to expand our sense of in-group, here, technology and social media can really help.
To do so we can —
- Deliberately engage with people who are ‘not like us’.
- Reach out through social media and digital technologies, which allow unprecedented levels of connection to people across the globe and with different experiences and ideas. Although we may still choose to coalesce around shared passions, hyper-connectively dismantles arbitrary walls.
- See the value in globalization, which despite downsides, disrupts geographical and cultural barriers and diminishes the fear of ‘otherness’.
The danger with mindless rebellion is that when there’s nothing else to push against, we rebel against ourselves.
No one (we say) will tell me what to think or do — not even myself.
There’s a phrase for this when it tips over the edge: self-sabotage.