- Hardcover: 198 pages
- Publisher: NYU Press; 1 edition (28 May 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1479867837
- ISBN-13: 978-1479867837
- Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 2.3 x 20.6 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 340 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 17,405 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Conformity: The Power of Social Influences Hardcover – 28 May 2019
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"Conformity is indeed as old as mankind itself. But the best book ever on conformity starts right here. And who better to write it than the arch non-conformist Cass Sunstein?"--Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics, George Mason University
"Cass Sunstein, one of the most original minds of our era, offers a powerful critique of conformity and the dangerous consequences of blind, like-minded thinking. From politics to law, Sunstein urges readers to see the value of institutions that reward a diversity of views so that we can reach the wisest and best decisions. At a moment when the country is watching the damaging impact of tribalism in our polity, this a much needed work that offers a fascinating, analytical explanation of what keeps us from thinking outside the box."--Julian Zelizer, Princeton University and co-author of Fault Lines: History of the United States Since 1974
"If you are alarmed, as many of us are, by the radical polarization of our political life, Cass Sunstein's new book will explain to you why it is happening and why the checks and balances built into our institutions constitute a barrier to the realization of our worst fears. Readers of Conformity will come away greatly informed, chastened in their idealism, but nevertheless optimistic about the survival of those same ideals."--Stanley Fish, Professor of Law at Florida International University and Visiting Professor at Cardozo Law School
"Sunstein unearths fascinating and surprising revelations ... Perhaps the most profound insight from Sunstein's book is the realization that conformity is working on us pretty much all the time. We think we choose what movies to watch, what books to read, or even what political tribe to claim--but our ability to form our own opinion on anything is greatly influenced by imperceptible forces nudging us towards consensus. That's not always a bad thing. But, as Sunstein himself writes, 'For all the good conformity does, it can also crush what is most precious and most vital in the human soul.'"--GQ
"Points out the positive benefits of conformity while also exploring how following the crowd can easily take individuals down paths of extreme thinking. Drawing on scientific studies, Sunstein discusses the corrective effects of dissent for the common good and not simply out of contrarianism. Eminently relevant, Sunstein's clarifying discussion is a must-read."--Booklist
About the Author
Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard. From 2009 to 2012, he served as the Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. He is the bestselling co-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness and The World According to Star Wars.
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Given that, my response was two-fold when I saw that Sunstein was writing about conformity. I was, of course, overwhelmingly excited because Sunstein is a brilliant mind and conformity is another of my favorite topics in psychology. However, I was also wondering how Sunstein could say anything more than many others have (most notably Stanley Milgram, a titan in the field and author of Obedience to Authority).
My worries were misplaced. Sunstein has written something that, despite its relatively-diminutive size, only he could have written. Only someone with as diverse a background as Sunstein could have taken the topic of conformity and applied it to governmental policy, constitutional law, social media, and the benefits of democracy over authoritarianism.
Sunstein, in keeping with the principles of Nudge, believes that laws can actually use psychological phenomena to society’s advantage. Laws may not even have to be enforced because of how conformity works. This is explained in depth in the book, but the takeaway is this (per Sunstein):
Law may be most effective when it goes beyond existing social values but remains close enough that it can claim to draw on them … A key point here is that the law was ahead, but not too far ahead, of the public at large. If the law were not ahead of the public, it would add nothing and in that sense have no effect at all. But if the law moved too far ahead of the public, it could not be effective without aggressive enforcement activity. And a law that is too far ahead of the public is unlikely, for that very reason, to be aggressively enforced(.)
This is just a taste of the myriad applications Sunstein makes with the principle of conformity. He argues for diversity of viewpoints (not necessarily race) in judicial appointments and college acceptance. He makes a short but compelling case for why the Allies won World War II. He defends the American constitution exquisitely, arguing that the thing that the Founders were most afraid of was conformity.
Especially striking was something that I was not surprised by but had never heard explained before: the idea that groups conform, but always in a specific direction. They always become more extreme. They never move towards the middle. Sunstein addresses the phenomenon by describing relevant research. He writes:
The effect of group deliberation was to shift individual opinions toward extremism. Group “verdicts” on climate change, affirmative action, and same-sex unions were more extreme than the predeliberation average of group members. In addition, the anonymous views of individual members became more extreme, after deliberation, than were their anonymous views before they started to talk.
We see this phenomenon everywhere, especially social media, but the simple principle of conformity by itself doesn’t explain it. If a group conforms over time, shouldn’t their new views converge on the original group mean? Wouldn’t people’s views be just as likely to become more moderate than more extreme? The answer, of course, is no. Why? Because someone with more extreme views is usually more outspoken or passionate about those views, and that looks to most people like confidence. And we tend to conform to the views of those who seem more confident. Maybe Facebook isn’t the best place to form our political opinions.
Sunstein’s thoughts on social media particularly stuck with me even though it was not a major theme (maybe because I have been either reading or teaching Tony Reinke’s wonderful 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You for much of the year). Sunstein comes back to social media and its effects many times over the course of the book, but he keeps it in perspective. Conformity is not a new thing. Its effects have simply multiplied. Sunstein says it better:
The subject of conformity is not limited to any particular time and place, and I hope that the same is true of the discussion of that subject here. But it is worth nothing that modern technologies — and above all the internet — cast long-standing phenomena in a new light. Suppose that you live in a small, remote village, with a high degree of homogeneity. What you know will be mostly limited to what is known in that village. Your beliefs might well mirror those of your neighbors. You might be entirely rational, but what you believe might not be rational at all. As Justice Louis Brandeis noted, “Men feared witches and burnt women.”
Our “village” is bigger than ever. And its teachings can’t easily be undone. We need to understand the mistakes being made (and why they are being made) so that we can fix them. Cass Sunstein’s Conformity (May 28th, NYU Press) helps with that, and for that reason it’s a must-read.
I received this book as an eARC courtesy of NYU Press and NetGalley, but my opinions are my own.
by Cass R. Sunstein
3.7 / 5.0
This book explains to us the influences and influencing factors that increase or decrease our incentive to conform. It also explains how informational and reputational influences produce conformity, cascades and polarization, and the importance of institutions to promote the disclosure of private views, not just popular views, to make an educated and sound decision whose effects apply to everyone.
Compelling and informing, I enjoyed reading this study of conformity and hope it will be widely read. It makes valid and important points, especially in today's world.
Thanks to the editor for sending this e-book ARC for review. #netgalley #Conformity