Popular Delusions: How Social Conformity Molds Society and Politics


Stephen Coleman

  Cambria Press, 2007




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Social conformity surrounds and enmeshes us, but we are seldom aware of its full impact. This book demonstrates just how pervasively social conformity affects society and politics. The impact of conformity on voting behavior and government is a particular focus. When conformity affects voters' choices, it runs contrary to the idea that voters are making a rational decision among political parties or candidates—the basis of democracy—and it can lead to unexpected political consequences. At the extreme, social conformity can hijack democratic government and lead to violence against minority groups or totalitarianism.

The impact of conformity is assessed through quantitative and qualitative analyses, a few simple mathematical models, and specific numerical predictions that are verified with historical data from the USA, Germany, Japan, Russia, and many other countries over much of the 20th century. The results give new insights on voting, political party systems, crime, ethnic violence, genocide and the Holocaust, democratic government, and the nature of society, including both positive and negative consequences of conformity. Building on research in cognitive psychology over the last twenty years, the book also ties conformity and resulting social institutions to certain cognitive processes that go on without a person's conscious awareness.

* * *  Recommended by Choice for graduate and research libraries * * *

Review by Yves Laberge, Universite Laval, Quebec, in Political Studies Review, 2011, 9(1):96

About the author

The author retired as a professor at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he had been Director of the Center for Applied Research and Policy Analysis. In addition to this study of social conformity, he has directed and carried out many applied research and evaluation projects for state agencies and the Minnesota Legislature, receiving several national awards. Prior to his doctorate in political science from the University of Minnesota he was a mathematician for Univac Defense Systems and Bell Labs' Advanced Radar Laboratory. He is a Fellow in the Royal Statistical Society.

Author's e-mail: Dr.StephenColeman@gmail.com

ORCID ID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6230-8463

More on conformity and social norms

 and links to new research that directly continues the author's work:

****For a short introduction to this research please see the following two articles:****

Coleman, Stephen. 2017. Voting and Conformity: Russia 1993-2016. Mathematical Social Sciences. Online 31.10.2017. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mathsocsci.2017.10.005.

Coleman, Stephen. 2010. "Russian Election Reform and the Effect of Social Conformity on Voting and the Party System: 2007 and 2008." Journal of the New Economic Association (Moscow), 5: 72-90. 

    (In Russian as Коулман, С.  "Реформа российской избирательной системы и влияние социальной конформности на голосование и партийную систему: 2007 и 2008."Журнала Новой экономической ассоциации 5: 72-90.)

Coleman, Stephen. 2004. The Effect of Social Conformity on Collective Voting Behavior, Political Analysis 12: 76-96.

    Or see the earlier, 2002, expanded, pre-publication version of "The effect of social conformity on       collective voting behavior."

Related research and published articles:

Coleman, Stephen. 2014. Diffusion and Spatial Equilibrium of a Social Norm: Voting Participation in the United States, 1920-2008. Quality and Quantity 48:1769-1783. (Published version available online and in press at link.springer.com)

Coleman, Stephen. 2007. "Testing Theories with Qualitative and Quantitative Predictions." European Political Science 6: 124-133.

Borodin, Alexander. 2005. Social Conformity of the Russian Voter. HSE Economics Journal, 9: 74-81. (In Russian, as citation below)

Бородин А.Д., Согласованность коллективных действий в поведении российских избирателей”, ЭКОНОМИЧЕСКИЙ ЖУРНАЛ ВШЭ, Tom 9 (2005)№ 1: 74-81. 

Aleskerov, Fuad, A.D. Borodin, C.E. Kaspe, V.A. Marshakov, A.M. Salmin. 2004. "Polarity of Electoral Preferences in Russia" Politeia, 2: 173-184. In Russian as "Поляризованность электоральных предпочтений в России (Опыт выборов в Государственную Думу РФ в 1993-2003 гг."

Aleskerov, Fuad, A.D. Borodin, S.E. Kaspe, V.A. Marshakov, A.M. Salmin, 2005: "Analysis of Electoral Preferences in Russia, 1993-2003: A Dynamic Index of Polarization." HSE Economics Journal 2: 173-184 In Russian as "Анализ электоральных предпочтений в России в 1993–2003 гг.: динамика индекса поляризованности C. 173–184."

"Russian Elections and Social Conformity: take 2",  blog by bbzippo, http://bbzippo.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/russian-elections-and-social-conformity-take-2/ --mathematical analysis of Russia's 2011 parliamentary election using Coleman's methodology in response to question of possible election fraud.

"Конформность и энтропия" [Conformity and Entropy] blog in Russian by jemmybutton.livejournal.com/2550.html on 29.01.2012--application of Coleman's methodology to the 2011 Russian parliamentary election with additional historical analysis.

Maxim Pshenichnikov, http://oude-rus.livejournal.com/585867.html. More analyses of Russian elections.

New research that independently supports the author's work:

Bekkers, Rene and Ingrid Veldhuizen. 2008. "Geographical Differences in Blood Donation and Philanthropy in the Netherlands--What Role for Social Capital." Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geographie, 99: 483-496. 

Gerber, Alan S. and Todd Rogers. 2009. "Descriptive Social Norms and Motivation to Vote: Everybody's Voting and so Should You." Journal of Politics 71: 178-19.

Goerres, Achim. 2007. "Warum unterstuetzen Individuen soziale Normen? Eine international vergleichende Analyse der Wahl- und Steurernorm in Europa." [Why do individuals support social norms? A European analysis of the norms of voting and taxpaying."]

Pronin, E., Berger, J., and Moluki, S. 2007.  "Alone in a Crowd of Sheep: Asymmetric Perceptions of Conformity and Their Roots in an Introspection Illusion." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92: 585-595.

Yamamura, Eiji. 2008. "Effects of social norms and fractionalization on voting behavior in Japan." unpublished MPRA paper and Applied Economics. 2011. 43:1385-1398.

Earlier research by the author and others on mathematical models and conformity:

Coleman, Stephen. 1975. Measurement and Analysis of Political Systems (Wiley).

Coleman, Stephen. 2004. The Effect of Social Conformity on Collective Voting Behavior, Political Analysis 12: 76-96.

    Earlier, 2002, expanded pre-publication version of "The effect of social conformity on collective            voting behavior."

Coleman, Stephen. 2002. A Test for the Effect of Social Conformity on Crime Rate using Voter Turnout, Sociological Quarterly 43: 257-276.

Cohen, Lenard and Paul Warwick. 1983. Political Cohesion in a Fragile Mosaic: The Yugoslav Experience, Boulder, CO: Westview Press.   


Links to articles on tax compliance, conformity, and social norms:

Coleman, Stephen. The Minnesota Income Tax Compliance Experiment

Coleman, Stephen. Replication of the Social Norms Experiment on Tax Compliance

Michael Wenzel on Australian tax research experiments


Classics on conformity: 

Charles Mckay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in American, Part I

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Part II


Additional resources:

The National Social Norms Resource Center cites research studies on the application of social conformity to remedy social problems.

MOST of US, a social norms marketing firm with more information on applications

National Social Norms Institute, University of Virginia

Sandra Blakeslee, NY Times, on conformity and brain-scanning research

Chimps and social conformity

Brain function and norm conformity

Neural systems and social norm violations

Joshua Greene on brain lesions diminishing conformity with social norms

Ralph Adolphs. 2009. " The Social Brain: Neural Basis of Social Knowledge." Annual Review of Psychology.


Selected articles citing the author's research:

                       Collins, William P. 1980. “Race and Political Cleavage: Ten Positions in a Local Election,” Journal of Black Studies 11: 121-136.


                  Darcy, R. and Hans Aigner. 1980. “The Uses of Entropy in the Multivariate Analysis of Categorical Variables,” American Journal of Political Science 24: 155-174.


                        Cohen, Lenard and Paul Warwick. 1983. Political Cohesion in a Fragile Mosaic: The Yugoslav Experience, Boulder, CO: Westview Press.              


                        Eckstein, Harry. 1992. Regarding Politics: Essays on Political Theory, Stability and Change, University of California Press.


                         Jahn, Detlef. 2007. "Was ist Vergleichende Politikwissenshaft?  Standpunkte und Kontroversen." Zeitschrift fur Vergleichende Politikwissenschaft 1: 9-27.

                        Jones, Philip. 2005. “’Consumers of Social Policy: Policy Design, Policy Response, Policy Approval,” Social Policy and Society 4: 237-249. 


                        Kahan, Dan M. 1999. “Privatizing Criminal Law: Strategies for Private Norm Enforcement in the Inner City,” UCLA Law Review, (46 UCLA L. Rev. 1859).


                        Kahan, Dan M. 2000. “Symposium on Trust Relationships, Part 1 of 2: Trust, Collective Action, and Law”, Boston University Law Review, (81 B.U. L. Rev. 333).


                        Sunstein, Cass. 2000. “Deliberative Trouble? Why Groups Go to Extremes,” Yale Law Journal, (110 Yale L.J. 71).


                        Lederman, Leandra. 2003. “The Interplay Between Norms Compliance and Enforcement in Tax Compliance,” Ohio State Law Journal 64.


                        Taagepera, Rein. 2007. "Why political science is not scientific enough: a symposium." European Political Science 6: 111-113. 


                        Taagepera, Rein. 2008. Making Social Sciences More Scientific--The Need for Predictive Models. Oxford  University Press. 

                        Fiske, Susan T., Daniel T Gilbert, and Gardner Lindzey, Eds., 2010. Handbook of Social Psychology, Vol 2, New York, Wiley. 


                        Krishnan, K. N. and D.R. Berwick, “Developing a Police Perspective and Exploring the Use of Biometrics and Other Emerging Technologies as an Investigative Tool in Identity Crimes,” Australasian Centre for Policy Research, Report Series 145.1.


                        Iraola, Roberto, “Lights, Camera, Action! Surveillance Cameras, Facial Recognition Systems and the Constitution,” Loyola Law Review, Winter 2003 (49 Loy. L. Rev. 773).


Other research

Author's research on biometrics and identification:

Biometrics report for the Minnesota Legislature (doc)

an abbreviated version, "Biometrics: solving cases of mistaken identity and more," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (June, 2000) (pdf)

a Polish version, "Biometria," Przeglad Wieziennictwa Polskiego (Polish Penitentiary Review, Warsaw) 31 (2001): 100-107.

and other studies:

Coauthor with Roger Benjamin, Richard Blue, and Alan Arian, Patterns of Political Development: Japan, India, Israel. (McKay, 1972).

Mentally Ill Criminals and the Insanity Defense.doc

Remedial Education (pdf)