Bestselling author Cass R. Sunstein reveals the appeal and the danger of conformity
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.
An understanding of conformity sheds new light on many issues confronting us today: the role of social media, the rise of fake news, the growth of authoritarianism, the success of Donald Trump, the functions of free speech, debates over immigration and the Supreme Court, and much more.
Lacking information of our own and seeking the good opinion of others, we often follow the crowd, but Sunstein shows that when individuals suppress their own instincts about what is true and what is right, it can lead to significant social harm. While dissenters tend to be seen as selfish individualists, dissent is actually an important means of correcting the natural human tendency toward conformity and has enormous social benefits in reducing extremism, encouraging critical thinking, and protecting freedom itself.
Sunstein concludes that while much of the time it is in the individual’s interest to follow the crowd, it is in the social interest for individuals to say and do what they think is best. A well-functioning democracy depends on it.
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
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.’
An investigation of the underpinnings of conformity, cascades, and group polarization could not be more timely. Cass Sunstein once again brings the latest social science to bear on a knotty legal and political problem, helping us see, with his customary lucidity, how we can design institutions to counter the foibles of our own psychology.
Anne-Marie Slaughter,CEO, New America
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
"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.
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