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Conformity: The Power of Social Influences – Cass Sunstein

by Venky

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In 1972, the social psychologist Irving L. Janis coined the term “Groupthink.” This term was employed to define a psychological phenomenon under which people endeavor to strike a consensus within a group. In most instances, people even set aside their own personal beliefs and philosophies before adopting the consensus of the rest of the group. People going against the overriding ‘group tide’ tend to maintain a veneer of stoic silence and quietude, often preferring not to rock the boat and let the harmonization of the crowd prevail.

But the pioneering example of the groupthink phenomena – without using the exact word – was bestowed to the world by George Orwell, courtesy his immortal epic, “1984”. Groupthink is but an analogy for and of its predecessor, “doublethink.” Doublethink as per Orwell in his dystopian work refers to the deed of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in distinct social contexts. Whether one desires to christen the phenomena Groupthink, or prefers the word doublethink or prosaically restricts oneself to calling it, conformity, the bottom line is that such acts produce outcomes that are not just undesirable or prejudicial but downright dangerous.

In his new and concise book, “Conformity: The Power of Social Influences”, acclaimed author Cass Sunstein dwells on the nature of conformity, its perils and possible measures to mitigate the ill effects of conformity. Conformity as Mr. Sunstein explains can be found in almost every sphere of our life. “Wherever we live – a small village or New York, Copenhagen, Jerusalem, Paris, Rome, Beijing or Moscow – we develop allegiances. Once we do that we follow informational signals from some people rather than others. We want the approval of those we admire, like and trust.” Mr. Sunstein brings to the attention of his readers the Power of Social Influences in bringing to bear upon people the attribute of conformity. In a social experiment conducted a few years earlier that involved assembling a number of citizens from two different cities to deliberate on three topic issues of our time: climate change, affirmative action and same-sex unions, the results revealed a startling trend. Individual opinions denoted a marked shift towards extremism and “Group Verdicts.” Citizens of the more conservative state veered towards extreme conservatism even if their individual opinion was to be liberal and vice-versa.

As Mr. Sunstein proceeds to illustrate this grain of conformity does not spare the judicial system either. “When sitting with Republican appointees, Democratic appointees often vote like Republican appointees, and sitting with Democratic appointees, Republican appointed judges often vote like Democratic appointees.” So what exactly influences individual beliefs and behaviours making them subservient to majority opinions even if such opinions might not be the most rational or logical alternatives? Mr. Sunstein focuses on two important factors: Informational influences and a pervasive human desire to have and to retain the good opinion of others.

 Informational influences dictate that “if a number of people seem to believe that some proposition is true, there is reason to believe that that proposition is in fact true.” The second influence postulates that “if a number of people seem to believe something, there is reason not to disagree with them, at least not in public. The desire to maintain the good opinion of others breeds conformity and squelches dissent, especially but not only in groups that are connected by bonds of loyalty and affection…”

Throughout the course of his work, Mr. Sunstein lays emphasis on three points:

  1. Confident and firm people will exert particular influence over otherwise identical groups, thereby leading them in dramatically different directions;
  2. People are extremely vulnerable to the unanimous views of others and thereby a single dissenter is likely to have a huge impact; and
  3. Bonds of affection, loyalty and belongingness within a group is far more likely to influence decisions on both easy and hard questions.

Mr. Sunstein corroborates his assertions by taking recourse to the experiments made by the Turkish-American social psychologist Muzafer Sherif, the Polish-American gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch and the American Social psychologist, Stanley Milgram.

Conformity is also an outcome of ‘peer pressure’ as has been dramatically illustrated by the Milgram experiments. People tend to take a deferential view towards the opinion of qualified personnel and experts. This deference exhibited by Milgram’s subjects towards the ‘expert’ in the experiment let the psychologist to an opinion that such obedience to authority was in a way reminiscent of the behavior of many Germans under the Nazi rule, However, Mr. Sunstein deigns to differ when he postulates that Miligram was not right in arriving at the German analogy. Milgram’s subjects were not simply obeying a leader but responding to someone whose credentials and good faith they thought they could trust.

Conformity is also the result of what Mr. Sunstein terms are “cascades.” In an informational cascade, people cease relying at a certain point, on their private information or opinions. They decide instead on the basis of the signals conveyed by others.”

Conformity will also depict a dramatic decline when people perceive themselves to be different from the perspective of ideologies, preferences, and allegiances from opinions expressed by ‘others’. Mr. Sustein calls this behavior “reactive devaluation”, to signify the tendency whereby people devalue arguments and positions simply because of their source. Conformity also takes a back seat when financial rewards are offered for making the right decisions or for providing the correct answers. People would be less inclined to follow group members when they stand to profit from a correct answer. Conformity also finds refuge in the phenomenon of Group Polarization. “Members of a deliberating group typically end up in a more extreme position in line with their tendencies before deliberations began. This is the phenomenon known as Group Polarization.”

Mr. Sustein argues for what he calls a “Voice of Sanity” to disrupt and derail the forces of conformity. Such a Voice of Sanity might even be a sole dissenter, a dissenter who typifies John Stuart Mill’s prototype “working against the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling.” As Mr. Sunstein claims, “if a group is embarking on an unfortunate course of action, a single dissenter might be able to turn it around by energizing ambivalent group members who would otherwise follow the crowd.” A classic case in point for the value of dissent being the marvelous study by Brooke Harrington of the performance of investment clubs. Dissent also finds enshrinement in the American Constitution, “which attempts to create a deliberative democracy, that is a system that combines accountability to the people with a measure of reflection and reason-giving.”

The most controversial ‘remedy’ to shun conformity is however reserved by Mr.Sunstein for the Courts. Arguing for what he terms ‘reasonable diversity’, Mr. Sunstein makes a clarion call for a requirement of bipartisan membership that operates as a check against judgments veering towards the extreme. Having a reasonable diversity, in the words of Mr. Sunstein would “ensure that judges, no less than anyone else, are exposed to such diversity, and not merely through the arguments of advocates.”

The facet of reasonable diversity might also be introduced in the realms of higher education according to Mr. Sunstein. “The idea is that education is likely to be better if a school has people with different views, perspectives, and experiences.” Justice Lewis Powell in the landmark decision involving the Bakke case, argued that a diverse student body is a constitutionally acceptable goal for higher education. The central reason is that universities should be allowed to ensure a “robust exchange of ideas” an interest connected with the first amendment itself.

“Conformity” in size is an extremely small and concise book. But the arguments packed within are more an eye opener leading to a path of potential progress than a manifesto that has been part of innumerable previous deliberations.

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