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The more people already agree upon or share a particular idea, the more easily a newcomer will in turn be be converted to that idea, and the more difficult it will be for one already converted to reject that idea

This "conformity pressure" can be explained by the fact that the newcomer will be subjected to expressions of the idea more often, and will more likely get in trouble if he expresses dissonant idea (Heylighen, 1992). Though conformity pressure is mostly irrational, often rejecting knowledge that is adequate because it contradicts already established beliefs, its alternative formulation, "consensus", is a criterion of the invariance type, since it implies that a belief does not vary over individuals. More invariant rules are more reliable predictors, and consensus, in the sense where people agree about an idea because they independently came to the same conclusion, can be viewed as a quite rational criterion for selecting knowledge (cf. Kelley, 1967).

From another point of view, conformity is an expression of "meme selfishness" (Heylighen, 1992). As memory space is limited and cognitive dissonance tends to be avoided, it is difficult for inconsistent memes to have the same carriers. Cognitively dissonant memes are in a similar relation of competition as alleles: genes that compete for the same location in the genome. Memes that induce behavior in their carriers that tends to eliminate rival memes will be more fit, since they will have more resources for themselves. The concrete result is that a group of carriers with different memes will tend towards homogeneity, resulting from the imposition of the majority meme and elimination of all non-conforming memes.

Conformity is a necessary criterion for the evolution of cooperation, that is, for the selection of behaviors that are collectively useful, without being individually useful. As D. T. Campbell emphasizes, group selection often runs counter to the more powerful and direct force of individual selection. Therefore, he proposes a mechanism that suppresses individually selfish deviations from these collective beliefs: conformist transmission. As illustrated by the mathematical model of Boyd and Richerson (1985), all other things being equal, it seems evolutionarily optimal for subjects to adopt the majority or plurality belief rather than a minority idea. Thus, already popular ideas tend to become even more popular, leading to an eventual homogeneity of belief within a closely interacting group.


Copyright© 1997 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Oct 3, 1997


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Evolutionary Epistemology

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