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Intelligence and the Curse of Conformism

I believe that the key to being exceptionally intelligent is the willingness to rigorously challenge your own prejudices and the prejudices of the society you live in.

And the number one prejudice that gets in the way of intelligent thinking, is not racism or sexism or homophobia, or any of the most frequently highlighted forms of prejudice. The most damaging and perhaps the most widespread form of prejudice, I suggest, is conformism.

The vast majority of human beings seem to be cursed by the cruel and debilitating weakness of wanting, indeed desperately needing, to be part of a crowd — wanting to fit in, not wanting to be unpopular or disliked, not wanting to be an outcast. It is a weakness that utterly cripples many people’s intellectual abilities.

When deciding upon their beliefs, attitudes and actions, they refuse to properly consider radical ideas, unpopular ideas or even ideas which might merely induce a moderately disapproving look when expressed or even implied. Their brains refuse to function when arguments are presented that fail to support whatever happens to be deemed appropriate and acceptable by their peer group, or according to the rules of political-correctness in the society they live in.

Even for people with stronger personalities, who are often capable of intelligent thinking, their intellectual abilities are often seriously weakened by their conformist tendencies when particularly controversial or emotive topics are under discussion.

It is not just that people are scared of being discovered to be different or labelled as different — they are scared of being different and scared of even thinking differently to other people — because of the sense of isolation they feel whenever they see themselves as apart from the crowd.

Yet, how can you reasonably hope to make society a better place if you don’t question its values and traditions? Are you ever really likely to properly consider new ways of doing things, if you never bother questioning the ways things are done now?

And yet, unfortunately, most people’s thought processes are severely constrained by the norms and expectations of the society they live in — with the result that they are dogged by prejudice and unable to think intelligently on any number of issues.

Conformism works to undermine intelligence on all sides of many debates.

A lot of racism, sexism and other well-known forms of prejudice in fact stem mainly from conformism. Very often, people discriminate against people on grounds of race, gender or sexual preference, largely because they seek to conform with the attitudes favoured by their peer group and/or those favoured by the wider society they live in, rather than because they have any particularly deep-seated racist, sexist or homophobic tendencies of their own.

At the same time, conformism undermines the intellectual abilities of many other people who are keen to be seen to oppose sexual, racial or homophobic discrimination, but who themselves are deeply prejudiced because they refuse to intelligently consider ideas which appear to conflict with the rules or spirit of political-correctness.

Instead, they feel compelled to blindly support, without qualification, whatever they perceive to be the politically-correct side of any argument — not because it is right, but because of their own desperation to conform.

Understand that this is not about whether they are right or wrong in their views. A person’s view, however, whatever it is, will not be an intelligent one if they refuse to fairly consider any alternative views.

Many people conform because they don’t have the strength of character not to. Others, perhaps, just haven’t yet got around to appreciating just how important it is to resist the temptation to conform. Many, unfortunately, just cannot conceive of living their lives any other way than through surrendering to conformism.

Pressure to conform affects some people’s thinking on some topics more than others — but there are few if any topics not affected at all by conformism. Conformism, by its nature, can affect people’s view on almost anything. Before, or even instead of thinking for themselves, they first look to assess what other people are thinking and what other people will find acceptable and appropriate.

Fundamentally, many people are not interested in intelligent discussion — only in demonstrating their allegiance to the crowd they feel they belong to and their willingness to conform to its rules and expectations. This dynamic all but wipes out the intelligent thinking capabilities of most of the population.