Saturday, February 18, 2023

Review of Why Societies Need Dissent by Cass R. Sunstein

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Book Club Event = Book List (09/23/2023)
Intriguing Connections = 1) To Cooperate Or To Defect?, 2) How To Have A Conversation?

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“For all these reasons, it is often reasonable to conform.  The problem is that conformity can lead individuals and societies in unfortunate and even catastrophic directions.  The most serious danger is that by following others we fail to disclose what we actually know and believe.  Our silence deprived society of important information.” – Cass R. Sunstein, Preface, Page v

“When a law no longer reflects citizen’s values, people are unlikely to obey it without a great deal of enforcement activity.  And when a law is so inconsistent with people’s values that it cannot, in a democracy, be much enforced, it loses its legitimacy.  It has no claim to regulate conduct at all.” – Cass R. Sunstein, Chapter 2: Obeying (and Disobeying) The Law, Page 53

“In an information 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.  Once this happens, the subsequent actions, made by a few or many others, give society no new information.  It follows that the behavior of the first few people can, in theory, produce similar behavior from countless followers.” – Cass R. Sunstein, Chapter 3: Traveling in Herds, Page 55



Decisions made by people, inform others what to do.  Conformity has advantages, but also consequences.  Conformity can signal good choices, with positive social feedback, while nonconformity can be punished.  Those who dissent from accepted opinions and make different decisions take a risk that they will be socially stigmatized, lack financial opportunities, or even death.  There are consequences to the individual for nonconformity, but there are consequences to society for conformity.  The danger of conformity is depriving the society of valuable information, for conformity can prevent the individual from sharing their information and believes.  Without the information, society and individuals have increased potential to make wrong decisions with undesirable outcomes.  By rejecting pressure to conform, those who dissent take a risk in providing the potentially needed information. 

Conformists free ride on the information of others, without adding their own information.  While dissenters provide information in which the community benefits.  Dissent is not always helpful, for dissenters can speak nonsense, or even take people in bad directions.  Dissent is less needed when the conformists are making correct choices.  But under uncertainty about the appropriateness of decisions and their potential outcomes, a group’s influencing power can prevent productive disagreement. 


Conformity and Dissent:

Even those who consider themselves independent and show independence, are influenced by the beliefs and decisions of others.  Individual beliefs and behavior are influenced by other people’s decisions, and for want of social approval.  Conformity can be an aid to decision making.  Lacking information on decisions, the decisions others make provides information on what to do.  That is why people follow the crowd.  That is why people pay attention to the decision of those they trust.  With different groups, coming up with different behaviors and beliefs, because each used the decision of someone else to make their own decisions. 

As more people believe something as true, there is more reason to believe it.  Much of individual’s thought comes from what others thought and did, rather than tacit knowledge of the topic.  Although not all views are held equally, for some are trusted more such as those in authority or with special expertise.  If others seem to agree on something, there is social pressure not to disagree with them, at least in public.  Wanting to be accepted into a group and have social approval, leads to a conformity that discourages conflict and disagreement that prevents the disclosure of information.  Lack of information that leads to poorer group performance. 

Conformity tends to increase with difficult tasks.  Difficult tasks contain more uncertainty.  Therefore, people defer their thoughts to others who appear to be more reliable sources of information. 

Even with extremely obvious solution, in experiments, people choose to conform to the claims of others about the solution.  Peer pressure can induce knowledge falsification, in which public statements misrepresent what the people actual information.  Deferring to the crowd perpetuates group errors.

Widespread conformity is a problem, for it deprives the public of valuable information.  Conformists not only follow others, but also silence themselves.  They do not disclose knowledge that might benefit others.  Conformity can prevent people from acknowledging what they see.  Perpetuating terrible acts, because of their silence. 

Few people might not speak out against a dominant view that is false but thought to be true, because they might not correct the dominant view while risking reputational damage.  Although, even a single dissenter can dramatically alter decision making for a group.  Reducing conformity and errors.

Conformist tend to be thought of as favoring social cohesion.  Dissenters tend to be thought of as being selfish individuals.  Although in reality, dissenters provide valuable information for the public, while conformists protect themselves.  Those who dissent take various personal risks, sometimes even risking their lives.  Dissenters can have valuable information, but might not voice the information due to lack of incentives for the dissenter, or because of potential repercussions.  Dissenters do need to be rewarded for them to voice their information. 

Groups that prioritize social cohesion over valuable discussions with dissent, have worse performance.  To create quality outcomes, a culture needs to be developed in which disagreement is welcomed without punishing dissenters.  A method for doing that is with anonymous sources of information. 

Contrarians are not meant to be celebrated.  They are rewarded not for providing appropriate information, but for simply disagreeing.  There is more to dissent than just a willingness to disagree.


Social Cascades:

Social cascades start with few people’s behavior which causes others to follow their behavior.  Other follow because they believe the behavior is appropriate, or want social approval.  As more and more people follow the behavior, they no longer rely on their private information, and do not share information with the group.  Lack of information that can lead to catastrophe.

Within an information cascade, people stop relying on their private information at some point.  They rely on signals sent by others.  Following those that are following others, yields no new information.  Without private information, participation in a cascade is reasonable.  Benefiting the individual when following others.  People might not reveal appropriate information because they can fear that the information can either hurt the group’s internal or public situation, or might even help adversaries.  Disclosing information can hurt others, such as by sending the wrong signals.

Cascades occur when deferring to the information of others, when predecessors have expert knowledge, and when individuals are rewarded for conforming rather than correct decisions.  Cascades can be reduced when people are rewarded for correct group majorities rather than individual decisions.

Information cascades can be broken by those with enough private information to reject the accumulated wisdom of others.  But even experts can fall into information cascades.   More informed people rely less on other peoples’ signals, and can influence other more.

Within a reputational cascade, people withhold appropriate information to maintain a favorable opinion from others.  Individuals silence themselves to prevent the disapproval of others even though the private information held is more appropriate.  Self-censorship is a social loss. 

Civil liberties such as freedom of speech, insulate people from pressure to conform.  To protect private and public rights from self-silencing.  Free speech prevents government from punishing those who do not accept popular opinions.  A crucial protection that provides a monitoring method on leaders by the citizens.  That are rare cases for legitimate reasons for restricting free speech, when claims can lead to imminent lawless action intent on hurting others.

Conformity coming from good decisions reduces costs of decision making without costly errors.  With high costs to errors, more dissent is needed to provide the diverse information needed to reduce the errors.  There are various ways groups can be diverse, and have conflicts.  Not all of them promote better performance.  Social ties are weaker with dissent.  Disapproving of other group members can lead to lower productivity.  Dissenters can have wrong information, and create conformity pressures of their own which can lead to bad information cascades.  Appropriate group dynamics needs to manage conformity and dissent. 



With group polarization, group decisions tend to become more extreme after discussion.  Decisions become amplified in magnitude within group polarization. 

Having dissent corroborated provides validation and self-confidence.  Unanimous confirmation within those who think alike, gives them more confidence in their views which promotes extremism. 


Laws and Compliance:

While some laws rarely violated, others are widely disobeyed.  Some laws are not violated, even though violating the law would not be visible or known to others.  Deterred by the potential unpleasant encounters with strangers.  Alternatively, unfair law might be complied with for social approval. 

Laws can be complied with simply by them being made public, rather than through enforcement of laws through punishment of violations.  The expressive function of the law enables people to find out what to do, and that others are complying with the law.  Compliance can come about though reminders of the law, that many others are complying with the law.  The more visible violations of the law, the more compliance there is with the law, to prevent the wrath of others. 

The expressive power of the law depends on whether the law is perceived to be a good source of information about behavior, or what others think about the appropriate behavior.  Laws need to reflect citizen’s values to be legitimate.  Without that legitimacy, the laws are going to be difficult to enforce.  Arbitrarily imposed laws by self-appointed elite, such as dictatorships, signal no information about behavior and must be enforced through terror. 

People consider six factors about laws which are the likelihood of enforcement, severity of punishment, reputational costs of violations, reputational benefits of violations, intrinsic benefits of compliance, and intrinsic costs of compliance. 



The book focuses on the consequences of conformity.  The author acknowledges that dissenters are not always beneficial and can lead groups into terrible directions.  But there is very little information on how to recognize and prevent inappropriate dissent.

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What are the advantages and disadvantages of conformity?
•Why do people conform to others?
•Why delegate decision making to others?
•What is the value of a dissenter?
•What risks do dissenters take?
•Is there bad dissent? 
•How does uncertainty influence group decisions? 
•If someone knows what is true, why would they not voice their information? 
•What is knowledge falsification?
•How does conformity and dissent adjust the productivity of the group?
•What are contrarians? 
•What is an information and reputational cascade? 
•Why are there civil liberties like freedom of speech? 
•What are the outcomes of group polarization?
•Why are laws complied with?
•How to increase compliance with the laws?
•What is the law’s expressive power? 
•How does the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes apply to conformity? 
•How does political correctness effect group decisions? 
•What is group think? 
•What is pluralistic ignorance? 

Book Details
Publisher:             Harvard University Press
Edition ISBN:      9780674017689
Pages to read:       215
Publication:          2003
1st Edition:           2003
Format:                 Paperback

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall          5