To understand why conformism is not a neutral thing, we must first take a look at the classification of human motivation. In other words, why people want what they want.
If we look up motivation online, there is an obscene amount of management advice on the internet – and not much else. That should be our first tip off about the way our motivation (or its absence) is hijacked for others to use, whether it is corporate or social use.
Indeed, it looks like every time a psychologist attempted to discuss human motivation, it has been used for and molded into corporate management wisdom. Just look at how Maslow’s theory of needs and aspirations have been converted into methods of making your employees pull the corporate carriage harder. But from an individual’s perspective there is more to the theory of motivation than what is monetizable for juicy consulting contracts.
If we classify human motivation as internal vs external, for instance, we gain an insight into the difference between things we are supposed to want (external motivation) and things we intrinsically want (internal motivation).
If you can’t think of anything in the second group (internal motivation) that is not also in the first one (external), that’s exactly why this classification is important to you – but not to your corporate overlords or your family and peers who would prefer if you didn’t have any internal motivation. In the absence of internal motivation all your resources can be harvested by the world, making you want and pursue things for them. In other words, external motivation crowds out internal aspirations, and it difficult to see when it is happening if we can’t articulate what we want in the first place, if we never took a step back to create ourselves and create our own wants. Which we are highly discouraged from doing.
Another way to classify an individual’s motivations is whether it is directed at avoiding something bad (negative motivation) or achieving something (positive motivation). The difference between the two in the difference between mere survival and actual living. There are always things that need to be taken care of, but if we sink into an existence where we just move from need to need, where we are only concerned with survival goals, it is easy to lose sight of the possibility of positive goals. Indeed, many lack the concept of positive motivation because they are so exhausted by pursuing survival and fending off negative things (starvation, eviction, social disapproval, punishments, fines, etc.)
And in the same way we are not encouraged to develop our own internal motivation, we are wildly discouraged from leaving survival goals behind and pursuing our positive goals. Developing positive motivation does not come naturally and we have very little concept of why we even need it. We are not taught how to do it and often we don’t even understand that we should.
As a rule we tend to misjudge our motivations. We tend to claim that we do something for ourselves (internal motivation) – it just happens to also be what others expect from us. Or we may attribute our own wants to our family, trying to justify it through their supposed needs.
We also tell lies to ourselves in this regard. We think that we are pursuing something positive (approval) when we are really just trying to make something negative (disapproval) go away.
A non-exhaustive list of examples of the above motivation matrix – with special regard to how it affects conformism.
#4 – External, negative motivation
A good example would be making social disapproval go away, but we rarely realize it when we do that (see next point). We think we want approval, which we think is something positive.
Making punishments and fines go away, trying to avoid social and legal punishments all belong under this not-too-proud group.
#3 – External, positive motivation
Striving for social approval.
Often, when we believe we are pursuing approval, we are really just trying to make social disapproval go away. In reality, if someone allows themselves to disapprove and pressurize you that way, the disapproval will always remain constant, only its excuse will change. A typical example would be a parent who is rolling their eyes for their son still being single, then because he is still not married, then because he is still childless, then because of how he is raising his children. By that time, however, it is too late to recognize that the craved parental approval is not forthcoming, no matter what he sacrifices for it.
The same stands for most of our social media interactions when we ostensibly work for social approval. On social media we work hard to post an image others will envy, approve, look up to us for. In reality, that never happens. No one in the history of social media looked at a friend’s image looking for things to respect that friend for. We are judging, that is true, but we are really looking for mistakes and failures in photos – not for reasons we can admire our peers. Even our envy is not a positive thing to behold, and thus the entire social media posturing and the work we sink in it is futile and can never achieve what we supposedly wanted to achieve with it: external approval.
If someone takes the liberty of handing out disapproval, they will always keep doing that. And that dooms our efforts to conform. Indeed, what we claim is #3, seeking external approval, tends to be #4, an effort to make external disapproval go away, and it is a neverending and futile effort.
#2 – Internal, negative motivation
Genuine, non-social survival efforts belong here, where the negative things that befall us for not acting do not originate in our peers. Like trying to keep starvation away, not to get evicted, etc. It is debatable if these things are genuinely internal, many tend to blame others for their own poor economic situation and thus shift this whole category into #3, but it is now irrelevant in our pursuit for the true impact of conformism.
#1 – Internal, positive motivation
The Holy Grail of the human experience. It is rare but we claim to have it all the time. This post is not going to discuss how it is to be created, but internal and positive motivation has to be honed and developed by the individual – no adoption of ready-made goals will ever fit the bill.
As a rule we claim (to ourselves) to have more internal and more positive motivations than we actually have. If we started to take out every supposedly internal goal from our list that also happens to be external, and every goal that is not really positive (like seeking approval) but negative (avoiding disapproval), we would end up with nothing. And that is a difficult thing to swallow.
Some activities also tend to belong in two categories. If I run out of pencils but need to draw something, going out to buy pencils is an external motivation. I am trying to remove an obstacle. But if I also happen to love stationary, the purchase of a bunch of pretty pencils is also something I enjoy for myself.
This dynamic is often claimed as an excuse to internalize negative goals. Someone who feels the burning pressure to do something and desperate to remove that disapproval might try to convince herself that she also happened to want what was wanted from her. We do this all the time.
And now we made the groundwork to analyse why conformity is not a neutral thing that depends of what we happen to conform to. It will always end up as a mechanism for evil.