“If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?” irritated parents everywhere ask when their kids argue that they should be allowed to do something just because “everyone else is doing it.” A new paper in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior suggests that societies may engage in such self-destructive conformity when they face unexpected environmental crises.
A model generated by Hal Whitehead, a biologist at Dalhousie University, and Peter Richerson, a professor of environmental science policy at the University of California at Davis, suggests that people tend to conform to what are perceived as socially successful strategies when they live in stable environments. As a result, odd individuals become rarer and societies lose their ability to learn new coping skills.
Whitehead and Richerson speculate that political systems might become dominated by conformists and stifle the ability of individuals to make timely adaptations to changed circumstances. They cite the Norse communities of medieval Greenland and the Mayan civilization in Mesoamerica as possible examples of societies that collapsed because of excessive conformity. Whitehead and Richerson think their research is relevant to dealing with current global environmental problems, arguing that “the risk of population collapse may be reduced by promoting individual learning and innovation over cultural conformity.”