Conformity: The Power of Social Influences — Cass Sunstein

A brilliant mind brings fresh perspective to a well-researched phenomenon

Jason Park
May 24 · 5 min read

Cass Sunstein is many things. He is a lawyer, a Harvard professor, formerly the Administer of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under President Obama, and he is a bestselling author (The World According to Star Wars). How I first was introduced to Cass Sunstein, however, was in his collaboration with Nobel-Prize-winner Richard Thaler in their brilliant 2008 book, Nudge. That book contains a tremendous amount of research in the field of behavioral economics, a favorite of mine because it is a hybrid of the most interesting (to me) aspects of psychology and economics.

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.

Park & Recommendations

A book review blog specializing in non-fiction. Information is meaningless without education.

Jason Park

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Book-reviewer. AP World History and AP Psychology Teacher. Life-long learner. Redeemed.

Park & Recommendations

A book review blog specializing in non-fiction. Information is meaningless without education.