Going to Extremes | Cass R. Sunstein

Summary of: Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide
By: Cass R. Sunstein


In ‘Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide’, Cass R. Sunstein explores the concept of group polarization, wherein members of a group tend to adopt more extreme positions towards their mutual predispositions. Sunstein delves into various aspects of extremism, noting that people tend to disregard opposing viewpoints, and become intolerant of differing opinions. By examining judicial rulings, juries, and political decisions, the author reveals how social comparison and conformity can fuel extremism. Get ready to dive into the world of group behaviors and their impact on society.

Group Polarization

When groups engage in discussions about a topic, they tend to take a more extreme position in the direction they were inclined before the meeting. This phenomenon, known as group polarization, has been observed in hundreds of studies conducted worldwide. Group polarization enables the investigation of extremism, which can manifest in all cultures and nations. When a group polarizes from mainstream society, either psychologically or physically, they can become extreme. They can also become intolerant of opposing viewpoints, discounting nonmember opinions. The phenomenon creates homogeneous groups that provide a starting point for investigating extremism.

Group Polarization – The Driving Force Behind Extremist Groups

Group polarization is a phenomenon where people, when engaging in group discussions, tend to adopt more extreme and polarized views than they initially held. It has a significant impact on various areas of our lives, including the legal systems, politics, business, and even terrorist networks. Group polarization occurs when individuals conform to the attitudes of a like-minded group, leading them to adopt more extreme views. The major factors that drive group polarization are social influence, social comparison, and exposure to information. Studies have revealed that people who are unsure about their beliefs tend to adopt more moderate views, whereas like-minded supporters can push politicians and business leaders towards extreme views and give them a false sense of reality. Additionally, group polarization can lead to the formation of extremist groups or cults by separating members from the rest of society. While group polarization can encourage generosity, it can also lead to aggression and hostility towards those who share opposing views. It is vital to understand group polarization to prevent its negative impacts and promote tolerance and understanding between groups with different perspectives.

The Power of Authority

Stanley Milgram’s classic experiments showed that people can be directed to harm others by authority figures. Through administering electric shocks of varying intensity to unseen individuals, participants administered maximum shocks despite their potential lethality. Milgram’s experiments demonstrated that people readily follow dangerous orders from trusted authorities. The concept of “deindividualization” was explored, where aggressive behaviors are dictated by the situation, making aggressors and victims appear less than human. In one experiment, 20 of 21 nurses followed a doctor’s directive to exceed the maximum drug dosage. These experiments showed that individual personalities do not inhibit aggressive behaviors, but situations dictate them.

Preventing Group Polarization

To prevent group polarization, leaders should seek opinions outside their circle of advisers just as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt did. Homophily, the tendency to associate with like-minded individuals, is a prevalent factor that contributes to groupthink. It’s not only limited to small groups or particular social characteristics but also extends to larger groups that unify based on common intelligence, attitudes and aspirations. Janis’s studies on groupthink highlight the importance of encouraging discussions and alternative viewpoints and avoiding absolute consensus to avoid extremist decisions with grave consequences. With the Internet, people have the opportunity to access different perspectives, but it’s essential to avoid homophily and seek out diverse viewpoints.

The Dangers of Groupthink

Our tendency to conform to group ideologies without questioning them can lead to disastrous consequences, as seen in historical events such as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Watergate coverup. Group members need to actively question assumptions and seek dissenting opinions. Informational and reputational cascades contribute to groupthink, leading to market bubbles and political conformity. The key to combatting groupthink is to encourage diverse perspectives and open discussions to avoid opinion cascades. Investment clubs with the highest returns are those that welcome debates and diverse opinions.

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