Why Your Opinions Usually Aren’t Your Own

By Clay Skipper
02 June 2019
Cass Sunstein’s new book, Conformity, explores the secret (and sometimes alarming) power of social influences

Once upon a time, conformity was a life-saving force. Consider: You’re on the plains with your fellow Homo sapiens, when, all of a sudden, your Paleolithic homies jump up and start scampering away from the campsite as quickly as possible. Would it be advisable to: (a) suss out further evidence; or (b) run? If you choose (a), you’re a nonconformist, which is cool, but you’re also dead. Going along with the group in less dire scenarios also behoved our primal ancestors. If everyone in the tribe wanted to eat zebra, and you were always that guy pushing for antelope, the tribe might tire of your constant dissension and cast you out.

The point is that we tend to conform because of its effectiveness in serving two purposes: it provides us with information about the world (through other people’s actions and statements), and it tells us what we should say and do if we want to stay in the good graces of the group. But, in the Extremely Online Age – when the speed and scale of the internet amplifies our information consumption, and social media supercharges ideological groupthink – this has all sorts of fascinating complications for our conformist tendencies. Which is exactly why Cass Sunstein, a Harvard professor and noted legal scholar who worked in President Obama’s White House, wanted to write his book Conformity: The Power of Social Influences.

Sunstein unearths fascinating and surprising revelations. For instance: if enough people in a group say that red is green, you can be convinced that red is green, even though all of your senses are saying that no, green is green (not great in a time of Fake News). Or that even though we tend to think of dissenters as destructive and conformists as sowing social harmony, dissenters are actually a force for social good because they are the only ones brave enough to point out cultural blind spots. But perhaps the most profound insight from Sunstein’s book is the realisation that conformity is working on us pretty much all the time. We think we choose what movies to watch, what books to read, or even what political tribe to claim – but our ability to form our own opinion on anything is greatly influenced by imperceptible forces nudging us towards consensus. That’s not always a bad thing. But, as Sunstein himself writes, “For all the good conformity does, it can also crush what is most precious and most vital in the human soul.”

A surprising revelation in your book is that we feel like we’re forming our own opinion, but, in a lot of ways, we almost never are.
One of the startling things that I learned doing the book is that the vast majority of things we believe, we have no reason to be confident of. That the Earth goes around the sun; that George Washington was the first [American] president; that there’s a really small part of matter called an atom. The first time you ride an airplane maybe or the first time you go up an elevator, you’re just trusting others and conforming to their behaviour, assuming everything is going to be fine. We know a bunch of things where the only ground for knowledge is what other people think, and that’s mostly okay and kind of a blessing. If we had to figure out for ourselves the wide range of things that we hold as true, we probably couldn’t get through a day.

You write in the book, that conformity “can crush what is most precious and most vital in the human soul.” Could you unpack that?
Let’s say, a company staffer has an idea about how to market a product. Maybe the idea is really precious – an expression of their own creativity – and they’re dying to tell people. But if the firm is negative about new ideas, the person might just shut up and feel awful, not necessarily because it was a great idea, but because they didn’t get to express themselves. That crushing of the human spirit through conformity is something I think all organisations have to watch out for.

In their own head people don’t censor, and self-censorship is part of civility

I want to talk about your work on “cascades”. Maybe you could first define what a cascade is.
A cascade is when one person follows another person not because they think the first person is necessarily right, but because they don’t have a lot of information and are basically deferring to the first. So say you have two people saying, “The new Avengers movie is fantastic.” A third person might think, “The new Avengers movie is just okay.” But because the first two say it’s fantastic, she’s reluctant to criticise them or reject their view, either because she thinks they’re probably right or because she doesn’t want to look like an idiot. Now you have three people in a row saying the Avengers movie is fantastic, even if maybe only one of them really thinks that. A fourth person will have to have a lot of confidence to tell the group that they don’t like it. Eventually, you can have a lot of people very excited for the Avengers movies, even if only one or two really like it.

You can observe something like that with successful products or even successful students. I’ve had this experience myself. In high school, I got some good grades in a couple of classes, and then I wouldn’t perform so well in another class, but the third teacher thought, “Well, he does well in the other class, so I guess I better give him a good grade.” This can happen in the job market: if you get a couple of good offers and others hear about it, you can get a cascade of lots of offers. Some people don’t get any early offers, and end up with no offers; though they could have benefited from a positive cascade if someone early on had said, “I like this person”.

One of the most interesting questions in the book is, “Would we be better off if everyone could say what they think?”
If everyone said what they thought, the days would be really tough. You’re going to hear stuff that you probably wouldn’t like to hear either about what they think about your clothing or the thing you just said or what they think about their own partner. You don’t want to hear that. In their own head people don’t censor, and self-censorship is part of civility.

On the other hand, in many contexts, to have somewhere between 1 percent and 15 percent more disclosure on what people really think is in the social interest.

We used to have trusted sources of information. Now, it feels like we don’t necessarily know which sources to trust anymore. If it only takes one person who’s confident to sway public opinion, and everyone is loud and confident, aren’t we at a greater risk of conforming to something that’s just wrong?
Here’s one way to think about it. When you go ask somebody what time it is, you expect them to tell you the truth. If they say it’s 3:00, you’ll go on thinking it’s 3:00. So we are wired, either by evolution or by culture, to credit what people say. To discount what people say – because it may depend on economic self-interest, political motives, or rage – people don’t easily come to that. But if you’re wired to believe [people] in the new circumstances you described, you can get into a lot of trouble.

I do constitutional law. And if I read something in a very good newspaper about a Supreme Court decision, I’ll often think, “No, they got that wrong.” Just because they’re doing a million other things. But then I’ll be reading something on occupational safety or environmental protection [in the same newspaper], and I’ll just nod and say, “Oh, yeah. That’s right.” It’s a tough mental operation. I think you’d get vertigo if you felt all the time that what you’re hearing from others is not reliable.

What are some ways to protect against that?
If your world is like Amazon’s recommendations – Amazon learns what people like you buy and then they show you stuff you might like – try to have a bit of a broader world. Try to have a little voice in your head that says: “It’s my community, but it’s fallible.” And try to see what people in different communities think might teach you something about how to do better in your job, how to do better in thinking about politics, and what music you should be listening to.

As you were studying conformity and human behaviour, and looking at the world right now, what’s one thing in particular that concerns you and one thing that makes you optimistic?
The thing that concerns me most is tribalism, where people sort themselves into groups of like-minded others and stir each other up into contempt or dismissal of people who are, after all, fellow citizens. In terms of hope: Human beings are very quick at recognising the decency and commonality of other members of the species. So if you’re in contact with one, and looking them in the eye, to see them as a member of a different tribe is not that easy. There will be a smile or a recognition that each of you share something, and that, I think, is a bright light.