Try to picture a conformist in action. We will call him William.
William is a follower, someone who is forever riding on the bandwagon and never driving. William adheres to standards because, well, they are standards, and he adores traditions. William is ever conventional because the unconventional is to him uncomfortable and even at times offensive. William is neither adrift nor passive. Despite appearances, conformity is a proactive mode and can be hard work. A conformist, such as William, does not float with the tide. He swims with it because it is stupid to resist. William buys the trendiest sneakers because the are trendy. He has no pronounced tastes of his own but he is convinced they look great since everyone is wearing them. William chuckles and scoffs at people who wear other shoes.
If William were an animal, he would be an impala, a ubiquitous southern African antelope that is easily identified with a large figure M on its rump. Safari guides may tell you that the M stands for McDonalds because, like the restaurant chain, the impala is a reliable source of nourishment and can be found on every corner. When you see an impala in the wild (and you will), it will either be in a herd or dead. The impala runs with the herd for protection and companionship and eats a consistent diet of plant parts. The individual impala takes no risks, and the herd certainly does not. The impala plays it safe, relying on numbers and speed to escape enemies. That does not mean the impala has no fun. Herds of impala may frolic together and play and even fight, but one herd member is always cautiously on the lookout for danger. The impala are so consistent that they drink water and even give birth at the time of day least likely to attract predators. With any threat, the impala herd will bolt in an instant and scatter with tremendous leaps to disappear into the brush. William is an impala. And, William eats at McDonalds too, not because he likes it better than other places, but because it’s familiar, easy, and where everyone else eats.
Now think of a contrarian. Let’s call her Trudy, keeping in mind that there are many fewer Trudys than Williams.
If Trudy sees a crowd on the march, she heads the other way. Trudy swims against the tide, often making a big show as she flails about. In fact, she does not like popular beach vacations and prefers staying home to work in her garden, which is "at least doing something useful." She must labor at her contrarianism, which she takes very seriously and is hence not much fun to be around. She is not a misanthrope, but she just hates going along with the throng. Strict adherence to traditions are for losers and followers. Trudy rarely goes to see the fireworks on Independence Day and has not put up a Christmas tree in years. Everyone else does that, so why should she? Trudy checks out the latest trendy footwear. She may even find the look appealing, but everyone is wearing them. She chuckles and scoffs before buying something else.
If Trudy were an animal, she would be the infamous honey badger. Aggressive and solitary, the honey badger is a sharp contrast to the passive and social impala. I do not mean to suggest that Trudy or other conformists are aggressive, only to point up the contradistinction. Honey badgers work hard for their differences. Their only fun seems to be in reeking mayhem as, for instance, when they attack barnyard fowl and kill more than what they need or when they take over the borrows of other animals despite being superb diggers themselves. In addition, unlike the impala, there are no honey badger packs. The individual honey badger can and will fight even much larger predators, including lions, and has the added defensive ability to disperse a noxious odor from a gland if in danger. The honey badger is a risk taker. As for food, the honey badger enjoys honey, to be sure, but eats just about anything: insects, rodents, lizards, fruit, roots, etc. In short, the honey badger is just the opposite of the impala, and that is the point of contrarianism: to be contrary, to do the opposite as a matter of course. Trudy's diet, by the way, is probably less varied than the honey badger's. For instance, she would not eat McDonalds, but make no mistake. She enjoys the Big Mac just fine, but she prefers driving a bit further to eat at Bojangles', which has shorter lines. Finally, notwithstanding assurances from the viral video that "the honey badger don't give a shit," Trudy certainly does give a shit, perhaps even more so than the William.
So, what is the difference between the conformist and the contrarian, the impala and the honey badger? The impala and the honey badger contend with exactly the same things in their environment but in near-diametrically opposed ways. The impala moves in herds, the honey badger largely alone. The impala plays it safe, the honey badger not so much. The impala flees from danger, and the honey badger charges. The impala eats a limited diet, and the honey badger eats everything. Their reactions are different, but their drivers are the same. Still, what drives William and Trudy? Both respond to what is trending and what is popular and make their decisions according to their disposition, one in favor of the trend and one opposed. They are entirely reactive if not reactionary, and at times equally knee-jerk. As a practical matter, the only difference between the choices of the conformist and the contrarian is the outcome, which are equally predictable.
Contrarians often present themselves to and are perceived by the world as independent thinkers or even iconoclasts, and I have tried to demonstrate that they are anything but. Independent thinkers may take in all the same information—for instance, what is trending, what is not—but they go beyond simply binaries and fold in, well, whatever they want. They may go with the trend. They may reject it. They may find another option. There is no good animal analog for the independent thinker because there is no single model for the independent thinker. They can range from the less-than rigorous outlier on one extreme to the rigorous critical thinker to the true maverick or iconoclast on the other extreme. They can be leaders, loners, or the loyal opposition. To whatever degree, the independent thinker is marked by a lack of easily predictive reactivity.
While I admit to a bias toward the independent thinker, in our society the conformist and the contrarian certainly have their roles and their utility along with the independent thinker. My point is to demonstrate how the contrarian and the independent thinker are just two sides of the same coin. All too often, contrarians are held up to the world as bold thinkers. We hear this claim when some ignorant people deny well-established science, such as with the science of climate change. There are a few scientists who renounce the human causes and the consequences of climate change. Their supporters will point out that famous scientists like Einstein also bucked the establishment, but the comparison is weak. Einstein was a maverick and iconoclast, not a contrarian. He did not look at the establishment and pick the opposite stance. He applied rigorous thinking and self-awareness to forge new paths in areas of science that were not as easily verifiable or readily observable (and, in fact, not nearly as universally accepted) as climate science. In short, he was not simply reactive but was thoughtful and thorough in his analysis and left open the prospect that he could be wrong. His method was even more important than his conclusions and contributed to the accuracy of those conclusions. His methodology indicates that he was neither a conformist nor a contrarian but was an independent thinker.
The contrarian, though, is not driven by careful thought or the objective search for truth. The contrarian and the conformist are simply reactors to the same stimuli, no matter how the contrarian presents him or herself to the world. If the impala/honey badger analogy is a stretch for you, think of sheep and wolves. We have all heard the story of the wolf that infiltrates the sheep herd disguised as a sheep. But, imagine the sheep is a conformist, and the wolf is a contrarian. The sheep and the wolf would then lead their lives much as conformists and contrarians, reacting to the same drivers, albeit in antithetical fashions. Is the wolf so different then? If not, we must conclude that a contrarian is nothing more than than a conformist in disguise. The conformist is, indeed, a sheep in wolf's clothing.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.