Conformity And Empty Choices


Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.
– John F. Kennedy

Conformity is seldom celebrated, often denounced.  Contemporary Western culture contains strong liberty themes, and conformity is often posited as an enemy to this triumphant advance of freedom.

Conformity is ostensibly a yielding to the pressures of others; a placid compliance with established powers; an affront to the hard won liberties of the West. Liberty consists of asserting one’s individuality in the spirit of ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ and ‘Footloose’, against the dryness of dreary, insipid conformity.

The truth is of course more complex.  Conformity is not always an imposition, and a modicum of conformity may be a path to greater, or at least more effective liberty.

The Nature of Liberty

Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep.
― Isaiah Berlin

The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin discussed liberty in two forms; ‘positive liberty’ and ‘negative liberty’.  Positive liberty is essentially opportunity; the freedom to act.  Negative liberty is the absence of constraint and obstacles, such as freedom from persecution.

The distinction may seem trivial, however there are differences.  The most relevant to this discussion is that of positive liberty, particularly insofar as it effects ‘choice’.

Our intuition may be to equate an increase in the number of choices available with positive liberty, however the truth is more likely the opposite. Voluntary abdication of some aspects of positive liberty; those we may release to the grey ranks of conformity, may increase our ability to make good choices, particularly when it matters most.

‘Choice’ after all is a finite personal resource…

Decision Fatigue

The difficulty in life is the choice.
– George Moore

Our ability to choose well is not inexhaustible. ‘Decision fatigue’ is a term coined in disciplines concerned with the psychology of decision making, applied to the decline in the quality of decisions made over time.  The thrust of that definition is that your ability to make quality, discerning decisions is a finite resource in any given ‘session’.

This is an important phenomenon to understand, as it’s been demonstrated to effect the decisions of judges, shopping patterns and even play a role in the persistence of poverty (Tierney 2011).

In the example of judicial rulings, researchers found that favourable rulings became less and less likely over a given session.  They were able to identify three sessions in the day of the judge, separated by food breaks, and found that the probability of a favourable decision declined from around 65% to near 0% over a session, and then promptly returned to 65% after a food break (Danziger et al 2011).

Consumer Culture’s Choices

The decisions you make are a choice of values that reflect your life in every way.
– Alice Waters

We can conceive of our decision making abilities in any given day or session in the same way we would our bank balances; a spendable, finite resource.

Marketers would have you ‘spend’ your choices with them, and in any given day we may see as many as 3,500 marketing messages.  What kind of outfit describes you today? What kind of car captures your spirit? Who are you going to vote for on America’s Next Top Elvis Impersonator? When we realise that our ability to make real decisions is a finite resource, it becomes apparent that these offerings are profound impositions; shackles in the guise of opportunities.

When we spend our energy deciding on the red shirt versus the green, or contestant 1 versus 2, it robs us of mental resources that could have been applied to more meaningful decisions; decisions more reflective of any serious definition of liberty.

Marketers’ offerings, in the name of ‘consumer choice’, are inline with many of the other flaws of consumerism.  Empty calories, empty houses, empty wallets … empty choices.  And just as when we consume empty calories we impair our health, when we make empty choices we impair our liberty.

Conforming For Freedom’s Sake

…assert not only your expression of individuality but also the method of expression itself

Conforming to norms in clothing, transport, housing and any other facet preserves your highest mental faculties for those things that really matter to you.  Even if group norms don’t exist for a given interest, adhering to personal routines offers the same benefit.

The marketer may try to persuade you to express your individuality through the avenues they offer, but perhaps it is a greater expression of individuality to refuse that offer; to replace it with your own form of expression; to assert not only your expression of individuality but also the method of expression itself.

If you can be cognisant of what matters to you, and equally important, what really doesn’t, then you can render to conformity and routine those decisions that matter least, and save your highest faculties for those choices that matter most.  In such conformity there is profound liberty.


Photo credit alessandro

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