Brain Pickings

On Conformity


What seven decades of psychology experiments have to do with LGBT equality and Wikileaks.

Groupthink is one of the most troublesome downfalls of organized society. Today, it manifests itself on a sliding scale of severity, ranging from genocide to bullying to superstition to fashion fads to the “Digg mentality” of news reporting. Still, most of us refuse to believe that our opinions, perception and worldview are being in any way shaped by those of others. And yet they are. Even subcultures, the very essence of which is to stand out, are founded on group conformity — or, as James Thurber famously puts it, “why do you have to be a nonconformist like everyone else?”

Conformity explores the issue at the root of groupthink by distilling over 7 decades of seminal studies into the psychology of group mentality.

What’s perhaps most interesting about conformity is how our own relationship to it changes throughout the course of our lives. We spend our teenage years trying, desperately, to fit in, only to mature into trying, just as desperately, to stand out — a point eloquently echoed by one Etsy employee in his recent contribution to the tremendously important It Gets Better Project.

As much as conformity is the currency of teenage years, an incredible thing happens afterwards and, all of a sudden, individuality is the currency.

For more on the subject, we highly recommend Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology — an anthology of 37 articles that examine the role of conformity in complex societies, a timely read the insights from which help glean a deeper understanding of everything from the recent Wikileaks scandal to Bieber Fever.

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Rare: An Intimate Portrait of Extinction


Did you know that at least 100 species go extinct each day? From National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore comes Rare — a breathtaking yet heartbreaking visual record of some of the world’s most endangered creatures. From flies to wolves, Sartore’s stunning close-up portraits evoke a bittersweet awareness of the magnificent world we live in and the rapid rate at which we are running it into the ground.

Caribbean flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber)

Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta)

Red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas)

Tawny frogmouth

Damaraland mole rats (Cryptomys damarensis)

Hawk-headed parrot (Deroptyus accipitrinus)

West Usambara two-horned chameleon, (Kinyongia multituberculata)

With 80 arresting and intimate animal portraits, the book aims to give a voice to the amazing creatures likely to go extinct without people ever knowing they existed and, in the process, to serve as a call to action for preserving the planet’s most precious living resources.

Rare does for animals what Cedric Pollet’s Bark did for the world’s trees, tickling our deepest dormant awe for nature’s remarkable diversity. The book is part of a 3-year project documenting Earth’s biodiverisity and bringing a richer understanding of the Endangered Species Act, a 1973 policy measure attempting to mitigate the environmental consequence of economic growth and development.

via Dump; images courtesy of National Geographic/p>

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How To Pick The Shortest Line


How queueing theory and early 20th-century Dutch mathematics can help cut your wait time.

Do you ever feel like you have a special talent for picking the slowest-moving line at the store or at airport security despite your most calculated efforts to pick the speediest one? Relax, there’s no mystical curse at work. Let Bill Hammack, a.k.a. Engineer Guy, explain why it only seems like you’re destined for slowness and show you how to navigate the mechanisms of line efficiency like a pro, using queueing theory and the work of early 20th-century Danish mathematician Agner Erlang.

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Susan Sontag: A Trifecta Remembrance


What frontpage news has to do with graphic design and the craftsmanship of the self.

Today marks the 6th anniversary of the death of Susan Sontag, one of my big intellectual heroes and favorite authors. From her seminal treatise On Photography, required reading in any serious photography class around the world, to her poignant observations on human suffering in Regarding the Pain of Others to her status as an honorary citizen of Sarajevo due to her relentless activism during the Sarajevo Siege of the mid-90s, Sontag’s cultural legacy is as far-reaching as it is wide-spanning.

Today, I take a moment to remember her with three essential cultural artifacts that celebrate her work and capture her spirit — an interview, an essay and an animated short fim.


Earlier this year, the iconic Paris Review opened up its archive to make available half a century worth of interviews with literary legends and cultural luminaries. In the journal’s 137th issue, published in the winter of 1995, Susan Sontag gives a priceless interview that reveals more of her countless facets than any other public inquiry into her rich, fascinating persona.

Of course I thought I was Jo in Little Women. But I didn’t want to write what Jo wrote. Then in Martin Eden I found a writer-protagonist with whose writing I could identify, so then I wanted to be Martin Eden—minus, of course, the dreary fate Jack London gives him. I saw myself as (I guess I was) a heroic autodidact. I looked forward to the struggle of the writing life. I thought of being a writer as a heroic vocation.” ~ Susan Sontag


The day after Sontag passed away in 2004, Design Observer founder Bill Drenttel wrote a thoughtful and personal essay on his experience of knowing Sontag as her son’s close friend and how her keen intellectual curiosity applied to the essence of the design profession.

Susan was the most intelligent person I have ever met. She was intense, challenging, passionate. She listened in the same way that she read: acutely and closely. There was little patience for a weak argument. She assumed, often wrongly, that you possessed a general level of knowledge that would challenge even most college-educated professionals. She assumed you knew a lot and that you were interested in everything precisely because she was so interested in everything. Anything less left her unsatisfied, and, as she would not suffer fools, she wanted every encounter to be one in which she learned something.” ~ William Drenttel


Regarding the Pain of Others was Sontag’s final book, published a few months before her death in 2004. In what’s partly a sequel to On Photography, a quarter century later, partly a tremendously important larger conversation about the role of visual media in war. In it, Sontag sets out to answer the quintessential question posed in Virginia Woolf’s book Three Guineas: “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?”

This simple yet beautifully crafted and powerful short animation, narrated by Sontag herself, uses the single most universal touchpoint with war — mass media — as a raw visual metaphor for the cultural criticism at the heart of Sontag’s book: Our media-driven desensitization and diminished capacity for empathy towards those truly suffering in the world.


On Self is a priceless selection of Sontag’s private journal entries, first published in New York Times Magazine in 2006. It offers a rare glimpse of Sontag’s “four selves,” revealing the meticulous craftsmanship of her public persona and the raw tenderness of her private self. For more of that, see the excellent Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947–1963.

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