Conformity: The power of social influences
New York University Press, $39.99 hb, 197 pp
In Conformity: The power of social influences, the renowned constitutional scholar Cass R. Sunstein acknowledges that social conformity can provide the glue to bind a society together. As he makes clear, there are many particular norms – legal or moral – that we would do well to follow for the sake of the common good. At the same time, he argues, conformity can facilitate atrocities, destroy creativity, drive out nuance, conceal valuable information, and crush free-thinking individuals.
On such an account, conformity often leads to mistakes. Within a process of discussion and deliberation, a propensity to conform to majority thinking is more a vice than a virtue. If we hide our beliefs and preferences when they vary from the mainstream, we keep our critical insights and positive ideas out of consideration. Conformists accrue standing in the group, or at least escape criticism, but they weaken the group’s deliberations. Conversely, honest dissenters may be punished for their trouble, but they offer information that may assist a good outcome. Thus, it is not necessarily conformists who are socially concerned and responsible, and it is not necessarily dissenters who are antisocial and selfish. In many situations, the exact opposite is true.