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The Hidden Power of Conformity

A review of "Conformity: The Power of Social Influences" by Cass Sunstein

Safari Partners/Flickr
Source: Safari Partners/Flickr

“It’s often a good idea to adopt the practices and beliefs of the people around you. For one thing, the people around you aren’t dead. If you do what they do, you might continue not being dead as well.” —Steve Stewart-Williams

You’re sitting at a machine. A serious-looking experimenter holds a clipboard nearby. In another room, there is a man with electrodes attached to his arms. You ask questions, the man responds. For each incorrect answer he gives, you press a switch, delivering what you believe to be increasingly higher voltage electric shocks. The man cries out in pain, shouting about his heart condition. You express concern but the experimenter tells you to continue the experiment.

You have probably heard of this well-known study, known as the Milgram Experiment. Prior to the study, Milgram asked 40 psychiatrists how many people would continue until the end of the experiment to deliver the final 450-volt shock. They estimated about one-tenth of one percent. In fact, two-thirds (65 percent) pressed the final switch.

But in another version of the study, Milgram added a twist. He hired two accomplices (actors) to join, along with the naive participants. For each trial, there was a team of three people: the participant and two actors. Milgram secretly instructed the two of them to dissent and refuse to administer shocks beyond a certain point. To his surprise, when the actors refused to continue the shocks, over 90% of participants went along with them. They joined in dissenting against the experimenter, ignoring his calls to continue delivering shocks.

Our urge to obey authority is powerful, but not as strong as our drive to conform.

Cass Sunstein’s new book, Conformity: The Power of Social Influences, delivers a brisk and accessible overview of research from social psychology, economics, and political science on how people behave in groups. Sunstein, a Harvard professor and alumnus of the Obama Administration, shares how such findings can be used to improve decision-making in policy and law. Sunstein honestly discusses the advantages and pitfalls of conformity.

Commitment Issues

For many people, conformity sparks mental images of sheep doing what they’re told. But in fact, Sunstein reports in the introduction, conformity has its advantages. We lack information about science, health, politics, and so on. Not only that, but we simply don’t have time to assess every option. Oftentimes, the most rational course of action is to follow the choices of those around us whom we trust.

We are natural conformers because, more often than not, it keeps us alive and keeps us in good standing with our peers. But sometimes it can lead us to disaster.

Consider group polarization, the topic of one of the book chapters. In short, social psychology has found that when individuals hold certain beliefs, those beliefs magnify when they interact with others who hold similar beliefs. In a study on jury behavior, researchers gave jurors an 8-point scale to measure how severely they wanted to punish a law-breaker. They found that when individual jurists preferred a high-punishment, the overall verdict was higher than the median juror.

Put differently, when individual jurors wanted a severe punishment, deliberation with other jurors who also wanted a severe punishment raised the overall severity. One juror might say they want to impose a fine of ten thousand dollars, another says anything less than twelve thousand is unacceptable. By the end, the amount might increase to higher than anyone’s initial starting point. On the flip side, researchers found that groups comprised of lenient individual jurors produced even more lenient verdicts than the median juror in the group. One juror wants to impose a medium fine, another wants it to be smaller, and after deliberation, they decide a slap on the wrist is adequate. When groups drift in a certain direction, individual members accelerate to show they are the most committed.

Perhaps equally alarming in the age of social media, punishments appear to be rooted in how outraged people feel.

Individuals who are initially outraged when confronted with an act of moral wrongdoing become even more outraged after group discussion.

In some cases, group polarization can occur because of what Sunstein calls “rhetorical advantages.” He shares a study of law students showing that given current social norms, people tend to support higher punitive awards to people who sue corporations. It’s easy to come up with arguments for why corporations should be severely punished, and arguing for leniency is unpopular. Thus, those who advocate for higher punishment have the advantage.

Relatedly, psychologist Paul Bloom, in Against Empathy, suggested that there is a rhetorical advantage for those who prize empathy over free speech. As he puts it, “free speech is always on the side of the censor. It is easy to feel the pain of the person upset by speech...the case for free speech, in contrast, is pretty unempathic.” If someone is hurt by what another person says, those who come to their aid hold a rhetorical advantage over those who argue for the abstract principle of free speech. You look kind when you comfort a hurt person and advocate for less hurt and you look like a jerk when you say sometimes words hurt but free speech is still important. Such group polarization supercharged by rhetorical advantage could be one reason why free speech suddenly became a topic of debate.

The Conformity Paradox

Then there are what Sunstein calls “affective ties.” Plainly, dissent can disrupt social harmony, which is not always the best path when interacting with loved ones. As the book puts it, “some forms of dissent might correct mistakes while also weakening social bonds.” This can be risky. The choice we face is whether we want to share our views, which could improve group decision-making, or go along with the consensus and keep our relationships intact. When we are bonded by affective ties, the latter option is more appealing.

When people hear what their group members believe, they are motivated to preserve their social status by reflecting those beliefs back at their group members. In a group where individuals are motivated by, say, truth, individuals can afford to ignore feelings. But sometimes truth isn’t the goal of groups.

Dissent can make people feel negatively toward you. In a group where the aim is to make good decisions, stirring those feelings might not be a big deal. But if the aim, explicit or implicit, is to promote cooperation and harmony, dissent can lower your social rank within the group. This aim is particularly strong if you are close with the group members and spend a lot of time with them.

The paradox is that the more you care about the people in your group, the stronger the social incentive to be dishonest with them.

Aging and Affirmative Action

Sunstein leans heavily on textbooks that show signs of age. Much of the social science literature has been updated and it would have been useful to see how recent work could be practically applied. Still, the principles Sunstein discusses are reliable. Fortunately, he reports classic findings on a topic that has survived the recent replication crisis. For better or worse, research on obedience, polarization, and group identification is robust. It is now beyond doubt that people conform with their groups, punish norm violators, identify with in-groups, and denigrate out-groups.

Furthermore, he takes sides. His policy recommendations are perspicacious, but clearly have a political slant, as his support in the book for race-based affirmative action indicates. Sunstein conflates racial diversity with viewpoint diversity, supporting the belief that one’s racial background must necessarily color one’s experience of the world. For Sunstein, affirmative action is necessary to provide a diversity of viewpoints. It’s unclear, though, why he thinks we should prize race over other features. There are many policies that could affect different groups of people in different ways. Often, policies affect people not because of race but because of geography or social class or other important factors. Individuals from different geographic, political, or socioeconomic backgrounds can likely provide ideas and viewpoints at least as distinct as a group of ethnically diverse individuals from the same socioeconomic background. Which is how, for example, elite universities currently look.

In closing, Sunstein has produced a tightly written book that stresses the benefits and dangers of conformity. He reviews key findings from classic studies in social psychology, economics, and political science to describe how the decision-making process works depending on whether groups and individuals prize truth or reputation.

A version of this post was published on Quillette.