Have you ever played AD&D? If so, you probably remember the mechanism its creators used to capture characters' worldviews. The innovative (for those times) alignment system was made of two independent variables:

  • approach to rules and order: starting with "lawful" and ending with "chaotic"
  • approach to morality and ethics: starting with "good" and ending with "evil"

Using the combination of these two (e.g., "chaotic neutral" or "lawful evil"), one could accurately depict a wide span of interesting (and clearly different) personalities.

This model is more than enough to roleplay (and have fun), but it is far too simple to reflect real-life accurately. However, it doesn't mean that simple models can't be useful apart from entertainment purposes - quite the contrary. One of my favorite mental models helpful in classifying people is based on ... individuals' conformism. I find it so valuable that I decided to devote this blog post to describe it.

Here we go then.

Why conformism though? What's so special about it?

According to behavioral psychologists (with whom I agree entirely, based on my empirical observations), many of us (human beings) value the sense of belonging and maintaining social harmony MORE than objective facts, universal ethical truths, or empirical observations.

Contrary to the common belief, conformism doesn't have to be associated with conservative and traditional points of view (on politics, religion, society, etc.) of the majority. Many people get attracted by and identify themselves half-blindly with particular niche ideas, trends, communities, circles. It's an inherent part of their personality - some people simply HAVE to belong, follow someone, and gain a social acceptance of their group. The nature of this attraction varies (can be very surprising) and doesn't have to be rational at all ("this simply resonates with me!").

The model I've privately adopted is described in detail here (by Paul Graham, one of the founders of the Y Combinator). Feel free to reach to the source for the complete information as I'll focus on what I find essential only.

The whole idea is about categorizing people by the aggressiveness and degree of their conformism. These will be our two independent dimensions (like in AD&D's alignment system mentioned earlier). Each category has only two distinct values - correspondingly:

  • aggressiveness: Passive VS Aggressive
  • degree: Conformist VS Non-Conformist

That gives us four combinations, which have dedicated names that reflect their specificity and nature:

  • Conformists / Aggressive (Tattletales)
  • Conformists / Passive (Sheep)
  • Non-Conformists / Passive (Dreamy Ones)
  • Non-Conformists / Aggressive (Naughty Ones)

What can we say about those groups?

  • Tattletales find adherence to the "norm" so important that they actively oppose (sometimes with incredible zeal) and ridicule those who do not conform
  • Sheep just follow, mainly because they can't even imagine skewing from what's commonly acceptable (e.g., in their community/family/society) - "what would people say ..."
  • Dreamy Ones (quietly) keep the right to think their own way (and stick to what they honestly believe in), but they keep it to themselves and yield to any environmental resistance
  • Naughty Ones do not care much about what others think and don't hesitate to fight for what they believe in

Now think about any popular topic that has polarized public opinion of your local or even global society within the last few months (preferably one that belongs to the "wicked problem" category). Think about warring factions that oppose each other in that debate. If they were all following the logic and reason, they would have figured the common ground already don't you think?

But they didn't, because in the center of the quarrel, there lies an idea, belief, or concept that is foundational for a significant enough group (political faction, party, ethnical group, subculture). It's the conformism regarding this group's ideals that splits people into the before-mentioned categories and ignites the conflict.

Seriously, try to dissect any of the public debates with that model. It's both fun and useful. My favorite (yet very sad) example: cancel culture.

Useful, in what way?

Here are my key learnings from using this model:

  1. Identify a particular person's archetype and tailor your approach to save energy and achieve your goals. Understanding a person's "conformism profile" makes it much easier to interact with such a person or gives you a clear signal to step back in hopeless cases.
  2. Good understanding of this model gets even more important "in-scale", when you're in charge of the change and struggle to "sell the idea" to the larger group of people.
  3. Tattletales are a very dangerous, toxic group - the bigger their social circle gets, the more passionate they are and the less prone to any reasoning.
  4. If you're an independent thinker, Tattletales appear hardly predictable only because you'd like them to be like you (and you're shocked they are not). Realizing and understanding what's important for them actually makes them very easy to read.
  5. Naughty Ones can be equally dangerous, especially if their main purpose is being in opposition: whatever "the enemy" says, they have to be wrong, because they are "the enemy".
  6. This model seems like a trivial plaything, but in fact it provides a simple explanation (especially if you keep in mind massive disproportions in groups' headcounts) why small, radical movements (like fascism, communism, or particular religions) could gain popularity rapidly and seize control over countless but indifferent (and conforming) masses.
Share this post