Conformity kills? How social convention may lead to societal collapse
Biologist Hal Whitehead can usually be found sailing the seas tracking whales, but his new research offers compelling insights into human behavior. His mathematical model suggests that promoting individual learning and innovation over cultural conformity may be essential to a society’s survival.
Dr. Whitehead, with Peter Richerson of the University of California, developed a mathematical model for conformist behaviour.
Successful human societies mix social learning – learning from others – with individual learning.
Without significant individual innovation, societies fail to respond to small but incremental changes in their surrounding environment.
The researchers believe that this model may in part explain the disappearance of the Norse from Greenland and the collapse of the Mayan civilization.
Though our global society is quite different, there are still valuable lessons that can be applied to modern-day organizations.
"In any population, you should have a mixture of what we call 'social learning,' which is learning from others, and individual learning, which is figuring things out for yourself. We often fall back on social learning because it’s easier. Copying what someone else is doing or getting them to teach you is simpler than doing it yourself from scratch." - Hal Whitehead, biologist
"The problem is when everyone is learning from each other, they lose track of what's going on in their surroundings. No one is paying attention to them." - Hal Whitehead, biologist
"Keeping innovative people around, those who think differently and for themselves, is crucial. It's really important that we as a global society encourage innovation and free thinking, getting people to take awareness of their environment and be willing to take risks, even if they're not always right." - Hal Whitehead, biologist
- Charles Crosby - email@example.com, 902.494.1269