Going to Extremes and Why Society Needs Dissent

cassimagesCass Sunstein is one of the more accomplished writers on judgment and decision making.  He is an attorney and was recently the head of OIRA, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the White House.  He seems to be able to write a book in about a day. He has written about twenty books including Nudge with Richard Thaler. One of the reasons is that the books each overlap a good deal, which should make it easier for me to get the gist of his ideology.  Ken Hammond wrote of him as one of the coherence school of judgment and decision making.

He often speaks of conformity, social cascades, and group polarization.  Group polarization seems to me to relate to the ideas of supersense, sacred values, and moral imagination that were presented in my previous post.  I enjoy his references to the founding fathers and these references are often the most persuasive part of his work. This post looks at the two books referred to in the title of the post.  The post will not be a good summary, but includes a few things I found interesting.

Sunstein suggests that we are conformists and that compliance with laws or rules can be increased simply by informing people that a high percentage of people are already complying.  One of the reasons that like minded  people go to extremes is that people with extreme views tend to be more confident that they are correct. Then if people seem to share their views, they become even more confident.  By contrast, those who lack confidence and are thus unsure what they should think tend to moderate their views. Cautious people are likely to choose the midpoint between extremes.  If you can easily exit a group, people may leave the group rather than dissent so this also can increase group polarization.  Of course, if it is a group fundamental to your life such as family or religion, you will not leave the group and also not dissent.

Sunstein points to the American Constitution as an attempt to create a deliberative democracy that combines accountability with a measure of reflection and reason giving. Some wanted the Bill of Rights to include a “right to instruct” which would bind representatives to vote with the citizens. Sunstein points out that today, the majority might want to include the “right to instruct”.  Sunstein quotes Roger Sherman for the reasons that this is not a good idea:

…I think, when the people have chosen a representative, it is his duty to meet others from the different parts of the Union, and consult, and agree with them on such acts as are for the general benefit of the whole community.  If they were to be guided by instructions, there would be no use for deliberations.

Too much of the time, citizen desires might be a product of cascade effects or polarization.

Sunstein suggests that when groups go to extremes, it is usually because like minded people have been able to congregate often moving from an initial sense of concern to outrage,and eventually to action.Sometimes polarization uncovers a suppressed set of beliefs and desires and sometimes it creates those very beliefs and desires. In the context of movements for rights, the beliefs and desires are usually there to begin with.

Sunstein notes that human beings are different from one another in countless ways,and when some differences are accentuated it is usually because of group polarization. When ethnicity becomes highly salient, reputational pressures play a large role, and when ethnically connected people associate with one another and punish those who do not, the conditions for ethnification are in place.  Ancient hatreds are not the problem, but new pressures are.

Sunstein invokes the example of Brutus, an articulate anti-federalist, spoke for the republican tradition when he urged: “In a republic, the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people should be similar. If this be not the case, there will be constant clashing of opinions; and the representatives of one part wrill be continually striving against those of the other.” Sunstein say that those who favored the constitution believed that Brutus had it exactly backward. Skeptical about uniformity of opinion, they affirmatively welcomed diversity, disagreement, and the “constant clashing of opinions.” They sought a situation in which “the representatives of one part will be continually striving against those of the other.” Alexander Hamilton spoke most clearly on the point, urging that the “differences of opinion, and the jarring of parties in the legislative department of the government … often promote deliberation and circumspection; and serve to check the excesses of the majority.” As the framers stressed, widespread error is likely to result when like minded people, insulated from others, deliberate on their own. In their view, heterogeneity of view can be a protective force. A constitution that ensures the ‘jarring of parties” and “differences of opinion” can provide safeguards against unjustified movements of view. More particularly, the institutions of our Constitution reflect an implicit fear of polarization, creating a range of checks on potentially ill-considered judgments.The most obvious example is bicameralism.

Sunstein, C. (2003) Why Societies Need Dissent. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sunstein, C. (2009) Going to Extremes- How Like Minds Unite and Divide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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