Steve Pollack Book Review | Conformity by Cass Sunstein

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conformity by cass sunstein

In his book opens in a new windowConformity, Cass Sunstein explores a topic that is as old as humanity itself. The author presents two main ideas as the central theme of his exploration:

  1. The actions and statements of other people provide you with information about what is true and right

  2. The actions and statements of other people tell you what you ought to do and say if you want to be in, and stay in, their good graces

Sunstein underscores the idea that unless your own imagination and experiences lead you in fresh directions, you will likely act and think as your neighbors do.  His book asserts that the central problem with widespread conformity is the public may be deprived of essential information it needs, which can lead to serious error.

Although there are individuals who crave rebellion or are inspired to deviate from the norm, most human beings appear to be essentially tribal. Wherever we interact, we develop allegiances. Once those allegiances are established, we follow informational signals from some people rather than others.

Cass Sunstein concludes that there are three key factors of conformity:

  1. Those who are confident and firm in their beliefs will have particular influence and can lead identical groups in divergent directions

  2. People are extremely vulnerable to the unanimous views of others--hence, a single dissenting voice  may have a huge impact in shifting influence

  3. Bonds of affection have a huge impact on our reactions to others. Members of an "out group" are far less likely to influence us. 

Sunstein also presents the idea of conformity "cascades," which represent a type of social momentum that can have significant, lasting impact on group conformity. 

Some of the particularly influential "cascades" Cass Sunstein addresses are: 

Social Cascades - Large scale social movements initiated by a few influential early movers. These can be constructive and/or destructive, and they can have lasting results or they be stunningly rapid and highly unstable. 

Information Cascades - Individuals cease relying on their own private opinions or information and decide based on new information and signals conveyed by others. 

Reputational Cascades - People think they know what is right, or what is likely to be right, but they nonetheless go along with the crowd, which can result in pluralistic ignorance.

Availability Cascades - A particularly ubiquitous type of group think that can spur a widespread focus on, or fear of, specific events or ideas such as immigration, crime, pandemics, kidnappings, shark attacks, etc..

Sunstein also discusses the ways in which group polarization can reinforce extremism, and explores the role of law and institutions in moderating these ideas and movements. 

The general lesson Cass Sunstein provides in Conformity is that we must devise institutions that promote disclosure of private views and private information.

Institutions that reward conformity are prone to failure, and institutions are far more likely to prosper if they create a norm of openness and dissent.

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