October 13, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 38: The conformity test, lessons from Leonardo da Vinci, and talent vs. genius

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

I.  The conformity test

“When I was a kid, I idolized my cousin Shoshana, who was two years older than me and therefore impossibly sophisticated in my eyes. During a family camping trip one summer, she introduced me to a trendy band called New Kids On The Block. As we sat in her tent, listening to their latest album on her cassette player, Shoshana said, ‘Ooh, this next song is my favorite!’ After the song was over, she turned to me and asked me what I thought. I replied enthusiastically, ‘Yeah, it’s so good! I think it’s my favorite, too.’ ‘Well, guess what?’ she replied. ‘That’s not my favorite song. It’s my least favorite song. I just wanted to see if you would copy me.’ I was embarrassed at the time. But in retrospect, it was an instructive experience. When I claimed that song was my favorite, I meant it—the song truly seemed better than the other songs. I didn’t feel like I was just saying so to impress Shoshana. Then, after Shoshana revealed her trick, I could feel my attitude shift in real time. The song suddenly seemed corny. Lame. Boring. It was as if someone had just switched on a harsher light, and the song’s flaws were thrown into sharp relief.

“Now I use Shoshana’s trick as a thought experiment when I want to test how much of ‘my’ opinion is actually my own. If I find myself agreeing with someone else’s viewpoint, I do a conformity test: Imagine this person told me that they no longer held this view. Would I still hold it? Would I feel comfortable defending it to them?” – From The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef

Galef’s experience is consistent with Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments from the 1950s that carried out the following test:

"Groups of eight male college students participated in a simple 'perceptual' task. In reality, all but one of the participants were actors, and the true focus of the study was about how the remaining participant would react to the actors' behavior."

Asch found that 75% of participants conformed to peer pressure, giving at least one incorrect answer. In response to the results, Asch said:

"That intelligent, well-meaning, young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern."

Conformity, after all, has become synonymous with safety. Have you ever laughed at a joke you didn’t find funny to avoid hurting someone’s feelings? [1]

We all have. The act itself is harmless. But it sets a dangerous precedent that we’re willing to modify our behavior, opinions and beliefs to conform to a situation.

A related concept that we explored in Mind Macros 08 is the spiral of silence:

“The German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann coined the term ‘spiral of silence’ in 1974 to refer to a phenomenon that we see often today: people’s willingness to speak freely depends upon their unconscious perceptions of how popular their opinions are. People who believe their opinions are not shared by anyone else are more likely to remain quiet; their silence itself increases the impression that no one else thinks as they do; this increases their feelings of isolation and artificially inflates the confidence of those with the majority opinion.” – From Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire by Luke Burgis (Read my highlights)

While social conformance might seem harmless, such actions can imbue themselves in the culture and have detrimental effects when scaled up:

Perhaps a table of presidential advisors are merely saving face, not wanting to lose their jobs and choosing not to share critical information that would anger the President. The implications could be catastrophic.

II. Lessons from Leonardo

In his biography of Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson shares several lessons that Leonardo embraced throughout his life; here are three of my favorites:

1. “Retain a childlike sense of wonder. At a certain point in life, most of us quit puzzling over everyday phenomena. We might savor the beauty of a blue sky, but we no longer bother to wonder why it is that color. Leonardo did. So did Einstein, who wrote to another friend, ‘You and I never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.’ We should be careful to never outgrow our wonder years, or to let our children do so."

2. “Go down rabbit holes. He filled the opening pages of one of his notebooks with 169 attempts to square a circle. In eight pages of his Codex Leicester, he recorded 730 findings about the flow of water; in another notebook, he listed sixty-seven words that describe different types of moving water. He measured every segment of the human body, calculated their proportional relationships, and then did the same for a horse. He drilled down for the pure joy of geeking out."

3. “Let the perfect be the enemy of the good. When Leonardo could not make the perspective in the Battle of Anghiari or the interaction in the Adoration of the Magi work perfectly, he abandoned them rather than produce a work that was merely good enough. He carried around masterpieces such as his Saint Anne and the Mona Lisa to the end, knowing there would always be a new stroke he could add. Likewise, Steve Jobs was such a perfectionist that he held up shipping the original Macintosh until his team could make the circuit boards inside look beautiful, even though no one would ever see them. Both he and Leonardo knew that real artists care about the beauty even of the parts unseen. Eventually, Jobs embraced a countermaxim, ‘Real artists ship,’ which means that sometimes you ought to deliver a product even when there are still improvements that could be made. That is a good rule for daily life. But there are times when it’s nice to be like Leonardo and not let go of something until it’s perfect.”

Quotes to Ponder

I. Jiddu Krishnamurti on not conforming to unhealthy social norms.

"It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society."

II. Arthur Schopenhauer on the difference between talent and genius.

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

[1] Perhaps not laughing would be kinder, preventing them from repeating the joke in front of another audience, causing further embarrassment.

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