In a culture that glorifies contrarians, the case for conformity

Bravery can mean defying your peers, but it can also mean standing with them in solidarity.
Image: Figurines
Can anti-conformity be it's own kind of groupthink?Westend61 / Getty Images
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By Noah Berlatsky

Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein's new book “Conformity: The Power of Social Influence” clearly and thoughtfully lays out the familiar case for dissent. Conformity is dangerous, Sunstein argues; dissent provides a virtuous and necessary counterbalance. But the book doesn't grapple with the way that anti-conformity can become a rallying cry for its own kind of groupthink. Sunstein's book has many virtues, but it seems particularly ill-suited for a moment when the worst people often frame themselves as brave contrarian truth-tellers. Maybe the real dissent, these days, is expressing skepticism of the conventional argument that the crowd is always wrong.

Maybe the real dissent, these days, is expressing skepticism of the conventional argument that the crowd is always wrong.

Sunstein's argument has certainly been made before, but he presents it with balance and flair. Human beings, he explains, are very susceptible to peer pressure. He points to Solomon Asch's classic conformity study, in which experimental subjects had to estimate the length of a line. Under peer pressure, subjects gave flagrantly wrong answers, defaulting to the crowd rather than believing their own eyes. "That we have found the tendency to conformity in our society so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern," Asch concludes.

It's easy to think of situations in which Asch is right. In the run-up to the Iraq War, for example, the U.S. public eagerly embraced the Bush administration's case for war — a case which turned out to be false. The fact that people generally rely on each other also leads to the speedy spread of false stories on Twitter and social media. People retweet and share information from people they know without checking for further confirmation.

So, conformity can be dangerous. But the love of dissent, like the love of conformity, can and frequently is hijacked by bad actors. Climate change denialists present themselves as brave contrarians defying an entrenched, corrupt orthodoxy. So do racists who want to reopen their debate on whether black people are less intelligent than white people. Nicholas Wade, a leader of the new "race science" movement, responded to widespread scientific criticism of his work by saying that his colleagues were subject to a "herd belief."

For that matter, much of our common sense, everyday knowledge is related by way of trusted friends or peers, not by independent investigation. Most of us haven't done experiments to determine for ourselves whether the earth goes around the sun, or whether smoking cigarettes is bad for our health. We know these things because we trust peers and experts. People who rigorously dissent and demand to find the truth for themselves aren't adding to our pool of knowledge in these cases. They're just cranks.

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Sunstein, to his credit, acknowledges the worth of conformity. He focuses on dissent, he says, not because dissent is always right and conformity is always wrong, but rather because in his view conformity has a better reputation to begin with. "It is usual to think that those who conform are serving the general interest and that dissenters are antisocial, even selfish," he argues. We like people who go along; we dislike people who buck the trend.

Yes, organizations dislike whistleblowers, and telling your boss off can get you in trouble. But it's also true that brave iconoclasts are constantly glorified in United States media and politics.

But is Sunstein right about conformity's popularity? Yes, organizations dislike whistleblowers, and telling your boss off can get you in trouble. But it's also true that brave iconoclasts are constantly glorified in United States media and politics. Apple ads encourage you to "think different," proclaiming "here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels" over a montage of Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr. Our movies star exceptional superindividuals such as Iron Man and James Bond who defy social convention by taking the law into their own hands.

The late Sen. John McCain built his entire political career on being a "maverick," beloved by the press for his supposed willingness to buck party orthodoxy. People who love President Donald Trump often say they love him because he's an anti-establishment outsider who promises (however disingenuously) to drain the swamp. A cursory look at any handy screen will tell you that Sunstein is not defying conventional wisdom, but agreeing with it, when he says that we should value dissent.

Sunstein might argue, with some justice, that, for example, racism in the United States is not a form of dissent, but a form of conformity, and that Nazis claiming the mantle of iconoclasm are being disingenuous. But this just illustrates the fact that beliefs can be either dissenting or conformist depending on the context. The majority of people in the United States disapprove of Trump, but it's not hard to find large communities where criticism of him is frowned upon. Some communities discourage casual use of racist slurs. Some don't. Finding truth isn't about expressing your personal conviction against the deadening weight of conformity. Rather, it's shuffling through various conformities to try to find the best fit.

The fact that dissent in our culture is its own kind of glorified conformity can make finding that fit more difficult. It's true that speaking up against a common view can be important and worthwhile. But so is going to get your kid vaccinated. Bravery can mean defying your peers, but it can also mean standing with them in solidarity. Sunstein's book is valuable. But readers should be willing to dissent from some of its conclusions, by, on occasion, championing conformity.