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This a great post, but I'm not clear on one aspect:

How exactly is it that greater understanding of the neurobiology underlying conformity suggests ways in which we might move closer to a classically liberal or transcendental notion of individual liberty?

In many ways, the neurobiology, while interesting in its own right, simply seems to confirm in different ways ideas and arguments for which anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists, among others, have documented repeatedly (i.e., that socialization is an inordinately powerful force). As you yourself note, the idea sounds Lockean, and I'm reasonably sure a notion of our strong tendencies to conformity reside somewhere in the Aristotelian corpus, though I can't at this moment say where.

But if all this is so, if Milgram-Asch showed in dramatic and shocking ways the power of socialization and conformity, then what exactly does the neurobiology really add to the story, other than a different kind of evidence from what has already been adduced and conceptualized for a long time? And more so, how is it that neurobiology may hold the keys to preserving a notion of unfettered individualism?


A hearty welcome to N&L blog, and I second Daniel's comment about the great post. Having watched the entire Prisoner series from beginning to end more than once, I strongly concur about the appeal of the series. Not having seen it for years, I had not thought about the neuroethical implications, but I think you are spot on.

As the resident neurobiologist in this growing group of N&L bloggers, I feel compelled to respond to Daniel's comment in which he questions the value of investigating the neurobiology underlying social conformity. Neurobiology holds no magic answers, but it does open up the prospect of understanding phenomena on a mechanistic basis (even if the cited study leaves this neurobiologist less breathless than it does CNN) in addition to the insights that have already been derived from disciplines such as anthropology, sociology and their brethren. If we are to move to a "classically liberal or transcendental notion of individual liberty", we may find that a deeper understanding how social conformity works at a mechanistic level has utility. The social goal is worthy but not easily achieved; we need every arrow in our quiver to nudge matters along.

Daniel and Peter,

Thanks for both of your comments and kind welcomes. In all honesty, I’m not sure what benefits this neurobiology research on conformity will have for our thinking about individualism.

As Daniel points out, the experiments of Asch and Milgram already give us a lot to work with in thinking about to deal with the our powerful tendency toward social conformity, and how and when to loosen it’s hold on our behavior. In fact, Cass Sunstein, wrote a wonderful book five years ago (Why Societies Need Dissent) where he considered how the experiments of Sherif, Asch and Milgram might inform the way we think about the structure and make-up of judicial panels and other decision-making institutions. He was particularly interested in Asch’s finding that even a single dissenter in the subject’s group dramatically increased the likelihood that the subject would reject the majority view herself. I’ve also wondered -- and perhaps you or other readers know of some work that helps answer this -- how a subject’s ability to buck even a unanimous group opinion would be affected if she brought memories of certain past experiences to the situation, like having heard or read about the Asch experiments, or having recently read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, or recently listened to Julian Cope’s song, World Shut Your Mouth, or watched The Prisoner.

I guess in the end, though, I tend to agree with Peter’s sense that understanding the neurobiology behind these tendencies toward social conformity can’t help but better inform us about why it is that we act in the way Sherif and Asch observed, how possible it will be to resist or alter those tendencies, and under what circumstances, and how we can go about doing so. Again, I’m grateful for your thoughts on this topic and would welcome additional thoughts, or recommended reading, from both of you and other readers of this blog.

Peter and Marc,

For the record, I do not dispute the idea that neurobiology may provide a different kind of (valuable) evidence for the power of socialization and conformity in human behavior (there's that word again, Peter!). I am not opposed to trying to understand these phenomena from a neurobiological perspective -- though I am, as Peter well knows, vehemently opposed to reducing these phenomena to neurobiological perspectives -- and of using the relevant tools to provide different analyses of socialization and conformity.

I suppose I agree with Peter that, while the neurobiological contribution to this topic is certainly worthwhile, I don't really see any cause for "breathlessness," nor do I understand how it is that the neurobiological contribution itself promises to open up vast domains of explanation and understanding previously unavailable (I'm not opposed to the effort, I just don't see why and how it is that this particular methodology is likely to provide such explanations).

My general feeling on most matters neuroscientific/neurobiological is not that the work lacks worth, but rather than the apparently common notion, from both lay and professional stakeholders, that the work promises to revolutionize our concepts of self and society, seems mistaken to me, or at least unlikely. These commonly held beliefs smack too much of scientism, IMO.

Nice thread!

This is an interesting reference about the subject:

Nice thread!

This is an interesting reference about the subject:

So sorry about multiple posting.


Thanks very much for the reference! I look forward to learning more from it about Klucharev et al's work on persuasion, expert influence, and conformity. For reasons I'll say more about in an upcoming post, I've been wondering about whether (and how) work of this sort -- in neurobiology, experimental psychology, and research in other fields -- might raise questions about other tenets of free speech jurisprudence. Thanks.

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