All societies reward conformity.  Yes, there’s often a sweet niche for eccentric geniuses.  But everyone else faces a stark trade-off: the more you want to succeed, the more you have to submit to social norms. 

On an emotional level, this upsets me; why should sheep inherit the earth?  Intellectually, though, I have to admit that conformity is crucial for human cooperation.  You can’t run a business where everyone “does his own thing.”  It’s only natural for employers to reward conformist workers – and equally natural for workers to pretend to be more conformist than they really are in order to capture these rewards.  Conformity signaling is a fact of life.

Question: How do conformity signaling and status quo bias interact?  If conformity is the only trait that people are signaling, the answer is fairly simple: Status quo bias appears to be stronger than it really is.  The dynamics work like so:

1. X becomes the status quo.

2. Due to true status quo bias, more people choose X.

3. Due to #2 and conformity signaling, even more people choose X… which sparks an upward spiral where even more people choose X to signal conformity.

In the real world, however, conformity is not the only trait that people are signaling.  Behavior usually signals multiple traits. For example, people contemplating marriage are trying to signal mutual commitment.  When “easy divorce” is the status quo, you can signal stronger commitment by opting for “hard divorce.”  Unfortunately, there’s a catch: When easy divorce is the status quo, opting for hard divorce simultaneously signals unusually high commitment and unusually low conformity.  As a result, even people high in commitment may stick with the easy divorce status quo to avoid looking weird.

What if hard divorce is the status quo?  People high in commitment and conformity now have every reason to stick with hard divorce.  More interestingly, though, people with low commitment may stick with the status quo simply to avoid signaling non-conformity.  Anyone who opts for easy divorce suggests that he’s a full-blown uncommitted non-conformist.  Not a pretty picture.

The implications for standard signaling models are subtle, but important:

1. People may deliberately refrain from signaling positive traits – and deliberately signal negative traits.  If the only way to show how good you are at X is to send a non-conformist signal, it’s often prudent to let the world overlook your talent.  If the only way to send a conformist signal is to show how bad you are at X, it’s often prudent to let the world see your shortcomings.

2. Merely changing the status quo changes people’s willingness to signal.  If the status quo is “send positive signals of X,” the prudent response is, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.”  If the status quo is “send negative signals of X,” however, the prudent response is unclear.  Sometimes it’s better to be perceived as talented but socially clueless; other times it’s better to be perceived as ordinary but socially adept.

Since this is very abstract, let me close with a simple example: bragging.  In our society, bragging about how awesome you are is abnormal.  That’s our status quo.  As a result, people with something to brag about often keep their accomplishments to themselves. 

Nevertheless, our society also recognizes special situations where bragging is socially expected.  You’re supposed to brag on your resume or c.v.  You’re supposed to brag about the success of your team and your family members.  In these special situations, bragging is the status quo, so even people with little to brag about can’t safely keep their mouths shut.  When you interview for a job, you’re better off disclosing modest accomplishments than pleading the 5th.