Conformity: The Power of Social Influences, by Cass R. Sunstein

For each of us, conformity is often a rational course of action, but when all or most of us conform, society can end up making large mistakes.
Conformity: The Power of Social Influences, by Cass R. Sunstein
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Excerpted from Conformity: The Power of Social Influences by Cass R. Sunstein [pp. ix- x; 4-5; 148; 150-151], published by NYU Press. Copyright 2021. All rights reserved.
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Conformity is as old as humanity. In the Garden of Eden, Adam followed Eve’s lead. The spread of the world’s great religions is partly a product of conformity. Books remain to be written on this topic, with special attention to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Generosity and kindness, concern for the vulnerable, considerateness, protection of private property, respect for human dignity—all of these are fueled by conformity, which provides a kind of social glue.

Conformity also makes atrocities possible. The Holocaust was many things, but it was emphatically a tribute to the immense power of conformity. The rise of Communism also reflected that power. Contemporary terrorism is not a product of poverty, mental illness, or a lack of education. It is a product, in large part, of the pressure that some people put on another people. That pressure has everything to do with conformity. When people of one political party march together, develop dogmas and rages, and ridicule people of another political party, conformity is at work. In its worst forms as well as its best, nationalism is fueled by conformity.

For each of us, conformity is often a rational course of action, but when all or most of us conform, society can end up making large mistakes.

The idea of conformity is far more interesting and less simple than it seems. But two ideas capture much of the territory. First, the actions and statements of other people provide information about what is true and what is right. If your friends and neighbors worship a particular God, fear immigration, love a nation’s current leader, believe that climate change is a hoax, or think that genetically modified food is dangerous to eat, you have reason to believe all those things. You might well take their beliefs as evidence of what you should believe.

Second, the actions and statements of other people tell you what you ought to do and say if you want to remain in their good graces (or get there in the first place). Even if you disagree with them in your heart of hearts, you might silence yourself, or even agree with them in their presence. Once you do that, you might find yourself starting to shift internally. You might begin to act and even to think as they do. […]

Also on the Forum Network: What We Owe Each Other: A New Social Contract for a Better Society by Minouche Shafik, Director, London School of Economics

The social contract - how we pool risks, share resources and balance individual and collective responsibility - shapes not just our wealth and opportunities but the very fabric of our lives. And yet societies everywhere are failing to adapt to the global upheavals of technology, demography and climate, leading to a breakdown in mutual trust the world over.

The Power of Social Influences

For each of us, conformity is often a rational course of action, but when all or most of us conform, society can end up making large mistakes. One reason we conform is that we often lack much information of our own— about health, about investments, about law, and about politics— and the decisions of others provide the best available information about what should be done. The central problem is that widespread conformity deprives the public of information that it needs to have. […]

In a well-functioning democracy, institutions reduce the risks that accompany conformity, in part because they ensure that conformists will see and learn from dissenters, and hence increase the likelihood that more information will emerge, to the benefit of all. A high- level official during World War II attributed the successes of the Allies, and the failures of Hitler and the other Axis powers, to the greater ability of citizens in democracies to scrutinize and dissent, and hence to improve past and proposed courses of action, including those that involve military operations. Scrutiny and dissent were possible because skeptics were not punished by the law and because informal punishments, in the form of social pressures, were relatively weak. […]

Conformity and Its Discontents

The general lesson is clear. It is extremely important to devise institutions that promote disclosure of private views and private information. Institutions that instead reward conformity are prone to failure; institutions are far more likely to prosper if they create a norm of openness and dissent. The point very much bears on the risks of group polarization. Groups of like-minded people are likely to go to extremes, simply because of limited argument pools and reputational considerations. The danger is that the resulting movements in opinion will be unjustified. It is extremely important to create “circuit breakers” and to devise institutional arrangements that will serve to counteract movements that could not be supported if people had a wider range of information. […]

 Behavior that is sensible, prudent, and courteous is likely to lead individuals and societies to blunder, simply because people fail to learn about facts or opinions from which they would benefit.

In the face of doubt, we do well to pay attention to the views of others. After all, they might know better than we do. It is prudent to be cautious about challenging other people, not only because they might be right but also because people do not always like to be challenged. Even in the most freedom-loving societies, people dissent at their peril. A reluctance to disagree is not merely prudent; it is often courteous too. But conformity creates severe dangers. Behavior that is sensible, prudent, and courteous is likely to lead individuals and societies to blunder, simply because people fail to learn about facts or opinions from which they would benefit.

It is usual to think that those who conform are serving the general interest and that dissenters are antisocial, even selfish. In a way this is true. In some settings, conformists strengthen social bonds, whereas dissenters imperil them or at least introduce tension. But in an important respect, the usual thought has things backward. Much of the time, it is in the interest of the individual to follow the crowd but in the social interest for individuals to say and do what they think best. Well-functioning institutions take steps to discourage conformity and to promote dissent, partly to protect the rights of dissenters but mostly to protect interests of their own.







Find out more about Conformity: The Power of Social Influences by Cass R. Sunstein (2021, NYU Press)
We live in an era of tribalism, polarization, and intense social division—separating people along lines of religion, political conviction, race, ethnicity, and sometimes gender. How did this happen? In Conformity, Cass R. Sunstein argues that the key to making sense of living in this fractured world lies in understanding the idea of conformity—what it is and how it works—as well as the countervailing force of dissent.
And check out also the OECD's report Building Trust and Reinforcing Democracy: Preparing the Ground for Government Action
Democracies are at a critical juncture, under growing internal and external pressures. This publication sheds light on the important public governance challenges countries face today in preserving and strengthening their democracies, including fighting mis- and disinformation; improving government openness, citizen participation and inclusiveness; and embracing global responsibilities and building resilience to foreign influence.

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Go to the profile of Jacques Drolet
9 months ago

Dear Cass,

thank you for your analysis. I would like to start a detailed explanation to address the motivation you see in conformity and dissent. Ain't got the time. I will nevertheless say a few things. Swarmship is the ground for a sustainable society. That is, the need for a flux between conformity and servant leadership.  And no, we are not born with the ability to navigate between these two states. That is especially true in our increasingly diversifying and changing world. The consequences are fear/violence, part of our old genetic abilities. Not that they are bad by themselves but if that is all we have... we get... populism and a lot of other nasty 'isms.

:-)

Jacques