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Conformity entraps

The logic of charisms/9 - Forming one’s autonomy to find one's vocation within vocation.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 14/11/2021.

"In the course of social interaction, humans generate outcomes that were not part of their intentions. Financial incentives can lead to a decline in production; the increased application of repressive measures can lead to an increase in crime."

Robert K. Merton, Social Structure and Anomie

Those who are part of charismatic communities are moved by different motivations. And imitators play a crucial and almost always underestimated role in this.

A note in the commentary that we have been stubbornly carrying out for several years now on communities and charismatic movements (the first article dates back to February 8, 2015), perhaps its keynote, is the relationship between good intentions and bad results. Many collective "poverty traps", some even very dark and deep, arise from the perverse effects of actions carried out in good faith according to their idea of ​​the common good.

Among these poverty traps, there is a particularly important one, not analysed enough that has to do with the phenomena of imitation and conformism that affect communities, especially charismatic ones. To be able to penetrate these complex dynamics within the space offered by an article, we must simplify the field. Ideally we need to divide the members of any charismatic community into three categories, based on the type of motivations that led them to enter the community and then stay there, (well aware that "to enter" and "to remain" are two very different verbs).

A first group of members is characterized by an intrinsically dominant or exclusive motivation. These are the people attracted to a community by its charism and nothing else, because they are responding to an authentic vocation, after feeling a perfect harmony between their soul and that of the charism. However, these subjects have a dual structure: on the one hand, they have (almost) zero probability of leaving the community, they do not make calculations and they give their all, because (and as long as) they completely identify with the charism. At the same time, these members are usually the first to leave if they are convinced that the community has betrayed its charism. These are the people, who when they leave a community, for example, become particularly nasty: having entered only for intrinsic reasons, their subjective experience of betrayal is particularly devastating (even more so for women). In other words, having no other "incentive" than the charism, the day they feel that it has left their soul, the subjects in this group 1 no longer have any reason to stay - and a thousand reasons to get away.

The people who only have this kind of intrinsic motivation are generally few, it is furthermore not certain that they always perform a positive function. Even if the perverse effects of intrinsic motivations are not the subject of this article, it is important to know that they exist and can be very serious, because those inherently motivated do not tend to listen to feedback from reality. The members of this first group do not tend to be leaders or executives: these people are more than often found in the suburbs, performing undervalued functions, partly because their attention to intrinsic aspects easily leads them into conflict with the management needs of the community government: bosses and leaders love the middle ground, not the extremities or the top.

Then we have the members of the second group, who mirror the former one. They are those people who entered and then remained in the community without having any real vocation or ideal motivation. Instead, they ended up there for the most varied reasons (search for company, interests, needs...); they are not necessarily morally bad, opportunistic or false people, because their distinctive feature is that they do not attribute any intrinsic value to the ideal or to the charism - they happen to find themselves in that community but could easily be in another. They are therefore people who only respond to incentives, and who remain if, and as long as, it is convenient for them to do so. It is always important to know that all communities, even the most beautiful ones, probably include a percentage of members of group 2. The historical story of Jesus also reminds us that it likely exists.

Finally, we have the intermediate subjects, those who belong in the third group. These are the people who have a combination of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, who are attracted to both ideals and incentives. The salient feature of group 3 is acting by imitation. They are in fact conformist subjects, who derive satisfaction mainly from following the emerging and dominant cultural, spiritual, linguistic and ethical traits in the community (A. Antoci, L. Bruni, P. Russo e A. Smerilli, The founder’s curse: The Stronger the Founder the Weaker the Organization, 2020). Not having sufficient motivational autonomy, their individual ethos becomes the ethos of the community. Therefore, based on the dominant collective ethos, they will imitate either the members of the first group or those of the second. Since a community is able to live and grow if the culture that is established is in some harmony with the charism, group 3 imitates group 1, because if the members of group 2 were to be imitated, the community would disintegrate or become distorted, as a charism is essentially a matter of intrinsic motivations.

The members of the third group are by far the most numerous in ideal communities. Even if - and herein lies the very core of these theories - each member of this third group is similar and different from the others: they are all conformists, but behind the same behaviour there are, invisible and (partly) different individual preferences. Some, in fact, are very close to group 1, others to group 2, and many find themselves in an intermediate area. Group 3 is where the crucial threads of the communities are knotted. First, it should be noted that when looking at a community from the outside - and often from the inside as well - it is not easy to distinguish the members of group 3 from those of group 1. Imitators behave as if they are intrinsically motivated without actually being so, or being so but in a different way.

The fate and quality of a community depend on the internal composition of the conformist group. For example, if a community includes too many members of the third group with very low levels of intrinsic motivation, that is, close to the threshold (equal to zero) that separates them from group 2, the community becomes very vulnerable to the great crises of ideals. The intrinsic motivations of the members in group 2 are already equal to zero, or negative, so these crises do not affect them. However, those who belong to group 1 have very high levels, and if the crisis does not attack the faith in the charism itself (which would be an altogether different crisis), this group remains protected from an average decrease in motivation. The critical group is therefore the third one. And there are many reasons for this, all of which are crucial.

Suppose that most members belonging to group 3 in community X have very low intrinsic motivations today, somewhere between 0.1 and 0.6, for example. These motivations are sufficient to not belong to group 2 but to group 3. If a crisis should arrive in this community, lowering everyone's intrinsic motivations with an average value – let us say – of -0.6, all those imitators with a motivational rate between 0.1 and 0.6 will end up having negative or zero motivations. They will actually transform into members of group 2. The opposite situation to when the motivational values ​​of group 3 increase on the threshold of separation with group 1.

Hence, it is evident that the ability to resist a great crisis largely depends on how the community and its leaders relate to the imitators-conformists during ordinary times. There are communities that facilitate and develop a culture of conformist imitation and those that instead favour the autonomy of individuals. An imitative culture is highly tempting, because it can make a lot of money in the short term, due to its characteristic of reducing discussions, minimizing decision-making frictions and management costs, and speeding up processes; the second kind is instead slower, more expensive and more risky. Forming people to become autonomous means giving up full control of individual consciences, putting everyone in a position to develop their own personal convictions about the charism. Enabling them to find their own vocation in the vocation, to freely decide whether to stay or to go (sometimes one stays alone because one does not have the freedom to go), to work on the "why" and not on the "how", that is, on the profound reasons for the charism and not on technicalities. When the first type of mentality or formation prevails, the increased speed and efficiency that prevails during happy times, generates an enormous vulnerability in critical moments.

That is not all, however. In charismatic communities, conformism is generally particularly rewarded and encouraged. While companies, with their pragmatism, sometimes remunerate and encourage non-conformist and creative members (provided that they bring turnover and profits), in charismatic communities non-conformism is almost always synonymous with infidelity to the charism, it is considered deviant behaviour to be discouraged, because in generally no one knows how to deal with it. Fidelity ends up being identified with conformity to the charism, and conformity to the charism with conformity to the dominant ethos in the community. Hence, an important practical consequence: the leaders of these communities, those who reach the central and peripheral top positions, are generally members of group 3, rarely of group 1; i.e. conformists who, however, are generally mistaken for intrinsically motivated people such as those in group 1.

Confusing conformism with fidelity, and therefore rewarding conformism, greatly facilitates a conformist kind of government and conformist ethos, both incapable of that creativity and innovation that would be essential for the continuation of a community over time. These "traps" are among the most common causes of the decline of ideal communities. Furthermore, when the community culture forms its members into imitation and conformism, in the short term there is an increase in members but not in vocations, because it grows by attracting new members with a conformist mentality - increasing group 3 (and a little bit of group 2), to the detriment of group 1. The success in terms of numbers then deceives everyone into believing that the training strategy is the right one, the circuit feeds itself over time until it creates a perfect "poverty trap". In communities with a predominantly conformist culture, motivational crises are devastating, sometimes even fatal, because rewarding and encouraging conformism has generated people with low intrinsic motivation and a low level of autonomy.

Thus, a crisis can be seen as a stress test that measures the nature of the people who make up a community: a crisis that generates many defections can signal that the community has grown by attracting many - or almost exclusively - imitating members. And from there, perhaps, it can try to rise again - by rising again you learn about Golgotha. Other different scenarios open up when the crisis is provoked by the exit of one or more members of group 1, when neither members of group 3 nor group 2 leave, but only someone with very high intrinsic motivations. In these cases, there are yet other ramifications, but we will talk about this on another occasion.

After the great successes of the miracles of Galilee, the Gospel of John tells us of the first great crisis in the community of Jesus: «”You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve» (John 6,67). Jesus revealed to his followers who he really was, and the crisis arrived. Those who had followed him included a very diverse population, with different motivations. Many left. Among those who remained, however, there were those capable of resisting the greatest crisis of all, that of the crucifix. And then they proceeded to change the world.

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