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Why Societies Need Dissent (Oliver Wendell Holmes Lectures)

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ISBN-13: 978-0674017689
ISBN-10: 0674017684
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

University of Chicago law professor Sunstein draws on an impressive knowledge of economics, law and psychology, as well as a great deal of common sense, to make an elegant and compelling case that dissent is critical to a successful society. So convincing and lucid is his argument that this work is likely to influence the current debate on the role of dissenting from official or conventional thinking when society faces external threats. Sunstein does not elevate dissent based on abstract ideology, but rather on the most pragmatic of grounds-good choices are unlikely to be made by a society that stifles dissent. In an engaging analysis, Sunstein examines studies of three related phenomena-the human desire to conform to group norms, group decision-making processes and the tendency for groups to polarize-that lead to the suppression of dissent. This suppression in turn results in the loss of accurate information and competing arguments, which are the basis for rational and effective decision making. Making his arguments all the more powerful, and more acceptable across the political spectrum, is Sunstein's choice to avoid taking political or moral positions on the many charged social issues-such as affirmative action and conformism among judges and in other branches of government-he employs as examples of how decision making is aided when dissent is encouraged. Sunstein also offers wise suggestions on how to create systems that not only tolerate but encourage dissent. This is a noteworthy achievement and an invaluable contribution to the literature on the enduring question of dissent's role in a democratic society.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


In an age of ever-increasing partisanship, political 'spin,' finger-to-the-wind politics and mega media mergers, Cass Sunstein offers a cogent and timely reminder that dissent is not merely an individual right; reasoned dissent and balanced debate are the very essence of a healthy, democratic society. (Senator Patrick Leahy)

Societies thrive on information exchange, yet powerful forces-from courtesy, to enthusiasm for consensus, to disdain for the heretic-suppress the expression of dissenting views. In this wide-ranging book, Sunstein traces the virtues of dissent in the most important decisions society makes, such as how to allocate resources, administer justice, and choose a government. His arresting findings are important to anyone who wants to know how organizations-from the family unit to the national government-should make decisions. (Richard Zeckhauser, John F. Kennedy School of Government, and co-author of The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite)

Why Societies Need Dissent displays Cass Sunstein's keen eye for the interesting question, his boundless intellectual energy, and his ability to bring theoretical sophistication to bear on pressing contemporary problems. I always read and benefit from reading Sunstein's work. Why Societies Need Dissent offers a welcome opportunity to learn anew from one of the nation's leading intellectuals. (Randall Kennedy, Harvard Law School, and author of Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption)

This is a timely and important book by one of America's most thoughtful and respected scholars. Cass Sunstein discusses the genius of the Constitution and the indispensable role of free speech, dissent, and tolerance for new ideas in maintaining and strengthening modern society. This is the book for anyone who has ever wondered how to make sense of pluralism and diversity in our world. (Senator Edward M. Kennedy)

Conformism is a drive sufficiently powerful to produce disasters even in countries endowed with constitutional protections for free speech. In this timely book written in characteristically lucid and entertaining prose, Cass Sunstein develops the underlying logic. His elegant argument also has an optimistic side. Where conformism is at work, courageous dissenters may prevent catastrophes by sowing doubts about the apparent conventional wisdom, or simply by implanting in cowed individuals the courage to air objections. (Timur Kuran, University of Southern California, and author of Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification)

Why Societies Need Dissent...shows that demands for lock-step conformity are wrong and uninformed thinking. Sunstein's important new study is filled with empirical evidence of the significance of opposition, found in his compelling explanations of the need for, and benefits of, disagreement. Sunstein reveals that, in fact, the influence of dissenters is for the better, be it with courts, juries, corporate boardrooms, churches, sports teams, student organizations or faculties, not to mention 'the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court...during times of both war and peace.' (John W. Dean Los Angeles Times Book Review 2003-09-21)

Sunstein provides a learned, intelligent and lively discussion of an issue of the first importance in societies which assume that real discussion and debate ought to inform public decisions. (William Neville Toronto Globe and Mail 2003-11-22)

In this well-written and wise little reprise of the great themes of Rousseau, Mill, and Tocqueville, Sunstein plays sociologist, psychologist, and legal scholar to good effect. He writes of conformity, cascades, and group polarization as conceptual notions that illumine the fear, apathy, and indifference that beggar public discourse, leaving it for the advertisers, spinners, and multiple would-be Pericles of the modern age. (E. Lewis Choice 2004-04-01)

As Cass Sunstein argues in Why Societies Need Dissent, we all pay a steep price when dissent is muzzled...Sunstein is implicitly raising a red flag about the deepening partisanship of American culture. A people cordoning themselves off from one another--listening to radio programs and reading books that parrot rather than test their assumptions--spells trouble. So does the growing polarization of our two major parties, which are increasingly dominated by their fringes. Sunstein combines these insights with the results of research in clinical psychology to show the costs and perils of stifled dissent. (Mitchell Goodman Raleigh News Observer 2004-05-02)

Product Details

  • Series: Oliver Wendell Holmes Lectures (Book 2003)
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (April 30, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674017684
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674017689
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #215,241 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Arnold V. Loveridge on January 5, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Sunstein has produced a book that is at the same time quite intuitive and yet counterintuitive. You find yourself nodding yes to so many of the things he points out only to be completely surprised when the conclusion isn't what you expected. For example, one might expect a larger group with more information to be able to more easily make a correctly informed decision. But, in fact, depending on the group dynamics the larger group may make it more difficult for certain viewpoints to be expressed and may marginalize minority viewpoints so that a less informed decision is the result.
I enjoyed the discussion of cascades where a series of decisions are made based on previous decisions which may have less general validity than presumed. The result is a lemming-like run of bad decisions which no one seems to be able to stop or even look at objectively.
Group polarity is another area discussed at length in this book. Sunstein points out that groups with mixed viewpoints represented may coalesce to a consensus viewpoint with the right climate or facilitation or they may spin off into highly polarized subgroups barely able to interface with one another.
I would think this book would be an invaluable resource for group facilitators, organizational experts, and think tanks.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful By ra2sky on July 1, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I really enjoyed this book. It was very readable and well written. I appreciated how the viewpoints and examples used were neutral and usable regardless of the reader's perspective on any issue.
Some of the more interesting points were: (1) an explanation of the pressure to conform, and why this pressure is surprisingly high even among those who consider themselves independent thinkers (2) the power of being first to speak in a group and the efficacy of a firm and confident tone (3) the two types of dissenters: contrarians and disclosers; and the importance of disclosing one's opinion and reasoning (4) discussion of "groupthink" and how group opinions form based on the group's members.
I appreciated Sunstein's frequent reference to psychological studies. That made this book much more credible and useful than one where an author merely formulates theories and writes about them.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 1, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I was skeptical as I started to read this book - I was worried that this would be a rant encouraging people to ALWAYS questions EVERYTHING.
Instead it is a very nice summary of scientific research into group behavior. How groups apply peer pressure onto individuals, without us really realizing it.
As I read the book, time and time again there was a study about group behavior that rang true with my experience at work, in meetings, etc.
Highly recommended for anyone interested in studies of group behavior, or for people like me that needed to understand why meetings seem to drag on forever...
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Dale McGowan on June 13, 2004
Format: Hardcover
A breathtaking piece of scholarship, Sunstein's book is readable, riveting and convincing. The arguments are sober and well-reasoned, providing ample citation and the address of multiple hypotheses at each stage of each argument. What emerges in the end is a powerful and compelling case for dissent not as something to be merely tolerated but as an essential high value, vital to the success of organizations and nations. At a time when this value goes largely unrecognized, Sunstein's contribution is inestimable. Never in my life have I bought multiple copies of a book to help spread a message --- until now.
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