Conformists are Free-riders

It’s mildly pleasurable to be widely agreeable, blogb2and vice versa.

Not being agreeable could also lead you to be punished by those around you, through jeers and scowls and boos. Be agreeable, and you get cheers and nods and smiles.

People who are built to seek after the latter tend to survive and thrive, as humans are social animals at the end of the day. Those who get nods from folks around them typically do better. We recognize those we often turn to as our ingroups (as opposed to our outgroups). If we had not learned to seek after smiles over scowls as babies, we would likely already be dead. After all, pleasing a parent into smiling is more likely to get you that treat (unless the child is spoiled and/or narcissistic!) Parental care is great, but it is also a conduit to condition people into having a fetish for social acceptance. It is not only (supposedly) practical, but also pleasurable, for us to socially conform to the expectations of our ingroup.

“and no one has ever given me what they gave me in that tent, ever,…. who can rule without wealth or fear or love?

Viserys Targaryen, Game of Thrones Season 1, ep. 6


What does conforming look like? blogb3It’s peer pressure, where you abandon the little ways YOU wanted to live your life to adopt and mirror that of others. It’s obeying rules, trivializing yourself into a side-character called the “law-abiding citizen” or the “obedient one.” It’s about being a part of a bigger narrative, the bigger plot. Following the expectations of the ingroup, conforming to the system around you, gets you rewarded.

In some cases this is a good thing. With the parents and babies case it’s clear how conforming would be a win-win: babies behave to please the expectations of the parent and get rewarded with milk and acceptance; parents get a peace of mind. Similarly for military serivce and civic lawfulness: there would be order in the daily interactions and transactions. However, conforming do lead to consequences.


The first issue with conforming is it can lead to mindless obedience. Ingroup expectations are most often on the cultural level. This means that, although it can varies (just consider how different the experience is for kids growing up in Asia vs America vs Europe vs Africa as they conform to what their parents tell them to do in school and life), it is static. Unchanging. Calcified. As such the life stories of the next generation is nothing more than what the previous generations had designed. Due to mindless obedience the young is thus simply trapped, encapsulated, contained, in the narrative of the old. There may have been a promise that the next generation will have the freedom when they become old floating around to sweeten the deal. But let’s face it: when the young have been obeying long enough they are more likely to let the promise sink and disappear when they too become the old generation. And thus the old narrative survives another generation, ready to entrap the next batch. As such, rather than it’s the conformists free riding the narrative order being the case, it’s aslo the opposite: the narrative order is free riding the conformists.

The second issue is appropriation: social “stealing.” Societies that make conforming both its means and ends, like the Japanese model, have people likely to “behave” when there is no enforcement. People conform for the sake of “conforming,” or the public good. But what happens when it was done more sloppily where conforming is only the means? What is the ends that people conform and obey for? It’s probably self-benefit! Failing to conform brings about social disapproval, which means the immediately perceivable losing side is our own self. This would lead to the conformist eventually learning that and setting on self-benefit being the ends. Conformists in this way end up becoming self-serving agents. Staying in line would thus be motivated by greed and selfishness. There is no sense of ownership over the rules one is conforming to. As such it follows that, when the rules are not enforced or exploitable loopholes are found, free-riding conformists would behave self-servingly. They cheat and “steal” from the common good. Sometimes selfishness leads to good results. But, it can be safe to say that the selfishness leads to negative consequences in the long term.


The third issue is limited creativity. Each social systems, each way of life, only affords the production of a rigid set of assets. What a culture that values success can produce as opposed to one that values experience, are inevitably different. No social order, in any place and time, can produce all the “goods” there could be. To overcome this, to become better, there needs to be creativity! However, this is in direct contradiction to what conformists strive for. After all, both their recreation and procreation are achieved by free-riding the old system.

The fourth issue is prejudice. Conformists who have a tendency to obey as well as sustain the social order is most likely related to two things: authoritarianism and social dominance. These two tendencies are both about insisting that there is an authority, a hierarchy, that one and others must follow. Both have been shown to lead to prejudicial behavior such as racism, sexism, homophobia, etc).

Ekehammar et al, 2004, p. 475


Non-conformists are dissenters. They go out of their way to follow a different set of rules: their own rules. Obviously, they do not reap the benefits usually rewarded to conformists. In a way, dissenters are often the outliers of a system, often referred to as either “villains” or “heroes” as related to their effects on the public good. They are the critics, fated to either become a destructive or a constructive force to public progress.

For another way to look at this, check out Pan’s Labyrinth: Disobedient Fairy Tale:


Works Referenced:

Ekehammar, B., Akrami, N., Gylje, M., & Zakrisson, I,. (2004). What matters most to prejudice: big five personality, social dominance orientation, or right-wing authoritarianism? European Journal of Personality, 18, 463-482.

Sunstein, C., R. (2003). Why societies needs dissent. Harvard University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s