American scientists using agent-based modeling techniques have linked excessive conformity to societal collapse and even mass extinction. The implications for the Copenhagen negotiations next week seem stark.

The researchers at Dalhousie University and the University of California-Davis have modeled how well different learning strategies work in different learning environments, and found that under certain circumstances societies can be doomed by conformist social learning. Specifically, conformity can be catastrophic in “red noise environments” in which the environment is stable for long periods then undergoes major changes in sudden, unpredictable ways.

As they point out:

Rapid change puts a premium on the capacity of individuals to learn through exploration and experience, and to adapt their behavior accordingly.”

The researchers argue that the ‘conformity in the face of rapid change’ pattern has characterized many well-documented historical examples of societal collapse, including among the Mayans in the 8th and 9th century and the Greenland Norse of the 10th century.

This is not to say that conformity is a bad thing. The ability of humans to learn from each other, to imitate and emulate, has helped societies function and keep total anarchy at bay. In relatively stable settings, such social learning is more efficient than having individuals waste time re-learning what other around them already know:

During long periods with only modest amounts of change, conformist social learning is a more successful strategy than costly individual learning… The mix of individual and social learning that evolves during the quiet periods of red noise environments tends to have too little individual learning to cope with the rarer big changes.”

The enduring question remains, as highlighted previously on this blog, how innovation and diversity can be nurtured while still supporting a degree of necessary conformity. 

All too often we get it wrong and usually for some pretty simple reasons. As Luke Rendell, a scientist at the University of St. Andrews, notes:

 People might find it difficult to believe that humans, in all their complexity, would do something so stupid as to copy themselves to extinction, but in my view that may rely on an overly rosy view of human omnipotence. What matters to most people is how they are doing as individuals right now, and longer term considerations are very easily pushed down the priority listing.”

Next week COP15 will see the international community attempt to move forward on new agreements for dealing with global warming and climate change. Sadly, examples of conformity in the face of rapid change are all too prominent. Two broad conformist approaches can be identified.

First, the deniers. There is an excellent website outlining the major arguments put forward by global warming sceptics, and what existing science really says about each of these arguments. There is an entire industry dedicated to discrediting any research or evidence that human-induced climate change is happening, much of it underwritten by big energy companies. These are what might be described as the ‘in-your-face conformists’ – this group has a number of special interests in maintaining the current status quo.

Second, and perhaps more problematic than the ‘in-your-face conformists’, are all those who acknowledge climate change is happening, but do not have the political capital or will to do anything about it except at the level of rhetoric. Some of the actions of this ‘stealth conformists’ group may be as damaging as anything done by the outright deniers. Without sufficient courage and will among these groups, the ratification of any agreement from COP 15 will simply be dragged out for as long as possible. Once ratified, the likelihood is the same thing will happen to the implementation of the agreement.

The danger is that without sufficient movement from those within the ‘conformist-by-stealth’ groups, we could well find ourselves caught up in a global version of the “conformity + change = collapse” equation.

The stakes are as high as they get, and are not limited to climate change and its implications, however large-scale those implications turn out to be. As Connie Hedegaard, Danish Minister for Climate and Energy and incoming COP15 president puts it:

If the whole world comes to Copenhagen and leaves without making the needed political agreement, then I think it’s a failure that is not just about climate. Then it’s the whole global democratic system not being able to deliver results in one of the defining challenges of our century.” (emphasis added)

From The Economist:

Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. The internet is cluttered with useless posts. This post of yours is an exception! Thank you for taking the time to share this.

  2. […] The Economist article highlights a suggestion which came from, among others, researchers at the Santa Fe Institute, the leading complexity sciences think-tank, to construct an agent-based model of the global economy, to permit real-time simulation and analysis  – “in the manner of global climate simulations, which project various possible futures”. One would imagine that – just as with climate simulations – such models would be subject to rigorous and extensive scrutiny / debate. One would also hope that the debate would be rather less politicised and dysfunctional than those surrounding climate change. […]

  3. […] In closing, and by way of some rather grim light relief, here is a cartoon which I posted two years ago before the Copenhagen talks. […]


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Climate change, Public Policy, Resilience, Strategy