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

Reviewed by Frank J. Gonzalez


In the polarized, post-truth, tribal era of politics that we find ourselves in, a book on conformity—how to understand it and take concrete steps toward diminishing it—should (rightfully) be expected to be of great interest to many. In Conformity: The Power of Social Influences, the prolific Cass R. Sunstein delivers exactly this. This book stands out from Sunstein’s other books in its focus on the broad societal implications of social influence. Sunstein grounds his argument in the principles underlying American democracy, and in doing so, he makes it difficult not to become depressed at how distant our current state of affairs seems from that ideal. However, Sunstein offers optimism in the form of a framework for actionable solutions.

Sunstein begins with a model of the two major features of human psychology that he says reinforce conformity: (1) the tendency to believe something is true if others believe it is true (especially “confident” others) and (2) the desire for positive social standing and reputation. In Chapter 1, he explains how conformity is frequently harmful because it encourages individuals to suppress their “private signals” (that is, expressions of what they individually think is right or wrong), which decreases the diversity of ideas in a group and ultimately leads to undesirable outcomes. In Chapter 2, Sunstein advances beyond the framework he has traditionally worked within by considering cascades, or the spread of ideas and practices through conformity pressures, which ultimately give rise to social movements. He acknowledges that cascades are not necessarily “bad”—they are likely what led to the rise of the #MeToo movement—but they were also likely crucial to the propagation of genocide during the Holocaust.

In Chapter 3, Sunstein discusses group polarization, one of his academic areas of expertise. He walks us through the research on how deliberation can lead groups to extremes and the factors that exacerbate and attenuate this tendency. Finally, Chapter 4 weds the aforementioned psychology research with the nuts and bolts of how American democracy works and how the Constitution was developed to keep conformity pressures in check. This is where Sunstein displays one of his specialties—applying the knowledge gathered in the academic world to the real-world problems faced by contemporary organizational leaders. He focuses on two specific aspects of the American system—the judicial system and affirmative action in higher education—as examples of the benefits of a diversity of viewpoints as a means of countering the negative effects of conformity.

A potential criticism lies in the somewhat underdeveloped acknowledgment of the positive aspects of conformity. Sunstein’s focus on the costs of group influence and cascades is motivated by a (justified) fear of “unjustified movements of view” (p. 115). But another justified fear may occur to some readers, which is that constant scrutiny of “movements of view” may, counterintuitively, asymmetrically support the status quo and stifle the momentum needed for foundational change. In the introduction, Sunstein uses the phrase “unjustified extremism.” So how do we then encourage justified extremism? Further, scholars familiar with the research on public deliberation may feel the existence of group polarization is a bit overstated, as a litany of individual-level and contextual factors (several of which Sunstein mentions) have been shown to moderate such effects.

Ultimately, Sunstein masterfully synthesizes decades of research into a coherent narrative and provides actionable ideas that can be used by a wide range of organizations. The book is another one of Sunstein’s that I expect to see in the hands of academics, policymakers, and businesspeople alike in the airport or local coffee shop.

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