Sheep mentality leads to extremism

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Sheep mentality leads to extremism

Conformity: The Power of… by Cass R. Sunstein, New York University Press, US $19.95, Pp 182, May 2019, ISBN 978-1479867837

The world is again being drifted into tribalism. It is becoming more and more polarized along religious, social and political lines. Race, ethnicity, and gender are widening the social and political divisions. How did we reach this stage? In Conformity, Cass R. Sunstein argues that it is important to understand the concept and idea of conformity to understand today’s world. This is exactly what he does in Conformity. If we understand the idea of conformity, we will understand the rise of authoritarianism and leaders like President Trump. Cass R. Sunstein says that human beings pay close attention to the informational and reputational signals sent by others. These signals produce conformity even in cases in which many people have reason to believe because of their private information. Informational and reputational influences also produce cascades, in which people do not rely on, and fail to disclose, the information they themselves have. Cascades and errors occur spontaneously when people take account of the decisions and statements of their predecessors. Errors are magnified when people are rewarded for conformity — and minimized when people are rewarded not for correct individual decisions but for correct decisions at the group level.

The Cascades, like conformity, are not a problem in themselves. Sometimes cascades produce good outcomes, at least compared to a situation in which people rely solely on their own information. Cass R. Sunstein says that the real problem is that when cascades are occurring, people do not disclose information from which others would benefit. The result is that both individuals and private and public groups can blunder, sometimes catastrophically. Institutions involved in making, enforcing, and interpreting the law are subject to conformity and cascade effects. Government has often blundered as a result. We have seen that within courts, precedential cascades are highly likely, especially in complex areas. The cascades tend to be both self-perpetuating and self-insulating.

The general lesson is clear. Cass R. Sunstein argues that it is extremely important to devise institutions that promote closure of private views and private information. Institutions that instead reward conformity are prone to failure. The institutions are far more likely to prosper if they create a norm of openness and dissent. The point very much bears on the risks are group polarization. Cass R. Sunstein argues that groups of like-minded people are likely to go to extremes, simply because of limited argument pools and reputational considerations. The danger is that the resulting movements in opinion will be unjustified. It is extremely important to create “circuit breakers” and to devise institutional arrangements that will serve to counteract movements that could not be supported if people had a wider range of information.

Cass R. Sunstein argues that many of the institutions in the US constitution serve to reduce the likelihood of bad consequences from conformity, cascades, and group polarization. Such institutions increase the likelihood that important information, and alternative points of view, will receive a public airing. More controversially, he says that an understanding of social influences suggests the importance of ensuring a high degree of diversity on the federal bench. It is foolish to pretend that Republican appointees do not act as a class, just like Democratic appointees. We have reason to appreciate the value, on any panel, of having a potential “whistleblower,” in the form of one judge of a different party from the other two. Of course, judges are rarely lawless, but a group of like-minded judges is prone to go to extremes. An appreciation of social influences on belief and behavior also supports the legitimacy of efforts to promote racial diversity in higher education, at least where such diversity is likely to improve learning.

Conformity is a profoundly insightful and fascinating work that shines a light on some unexplored corners of human nature. We may believe that we make our decisions independently, but most of our decisions are influenced by un-seeable social forces. He argues that human beings tend to suppress their independent thinking and follow others. They are only a little better than sheep although there are a few dissidents. Cass R. Sunstein has focused on law and policy. Making an independent political opinion is very important for sustainable democracy. Sheep mentality and tribalism can lead to very dangerous consequences for the social and political fabric of society. Conformity will help us better understand today’s political and social polarization in society. Conformity or sheep mentality may quickly lead to extremism.

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