- Hardcover: 208 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (May 13, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0195378016
- ISBN-13: 978-0195378016
- Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 0.9 x 5.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 19 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,526,790 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide 1st Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
Harvard law professor Sunstein (Radicals in Robes) explores the nature of group decision making, largely expounding on his contention that homogenous groups of like-minded people tend to adopt more extreme positions than groups with a diversity of opinions. As in his previous, coauthored book, Nudge, in which he argued that small incentives can subtly push people toward making better decisions, Sunstein marshals empirical evidence in aid of his argument, which largely focuses on politics and public policy. As President Obama's nominee to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Sunstein's ideas about such matters have now attained a level of national importance, but with the exception of a few notable potshots at the decision making in George W. Bush's White House, the book is not ideological and displays a keen interest in diverse areas ranging from the mindset that leads to genocide to how conspiracy theories form and are propagated. Interestingly, and most helpfully, Sunstein returns repeatedly to the recruitment and decision-making processes of Islamic terrorists, finding in these groups the purest example of the radicalizing echo chamber effect that the book warns against. (May)
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"Cass Sunstein has written Going to Extremes for those confounded by a country that remains stubbornly polarized. In clear, precise language, he explains that extremism is a consequence of the company we keep. He challenges not only what we think, but how we come to our beliefs, and he demonstrates that diversity of thought is the one ingredient necessary for both a healthy state and a working democracy." --Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort
"A path-breaking exploration of the perils and possibilities created by polarization among the like-minded."--Kathleen Hall Jamieson, co-author of unSpun and Echo Chamber
"Sunstein's book poses a powerful challenge to anyone concerned with the future of our democracy. He reveals the dark side to our cherished freedoms of thought, expression and participation. New strategies and new designs are required to make political discussion the constructive force our ideals prescribe. His book initiates an urgent dialogue which any thoughtful citizen should be interested in." --James S. Fishkin, author of When the People Speak
"Harvard law professor Sunstein (Radicals in Robes) explores the nature of group decision making, largely expounding on his contention that homogenous groups of like-minded people tend to adopt more extreme positions than groups with a diversity of opinions.... As President Obama's nominee to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Sunstein's ideas...[have] attained a level of national importance."--Publishers Weekly
"Cass Sunstein's work and theories have never been more important."--Seed
"meant to unsettle us in the way his earlier work did"--Slate
"An excellent study of the conditions that drive events like the financial crisis...a valuable survey of research pertinent to managers in various areas of finance, and it suggests a range of practical, utilizable approaches to improving decision-making processes."--The Investment Professional
"A fun book to read...Sunstein is a brilliant writer, learned and clever."--Contemporary Sociology
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Much of what SUNSTEIN says is very interesting (albeit not that new, see SHERMER Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time or SUROWIECKI The Wisdom of Crowds): far from being fearless rational machines, humans are delicate psychological complexes very sensitive to social pressures - simple conformism quickly veers toward extremism. The group is the social unit within which this phenomenon occurs. The smaller the group - the faster the shift towards extremism. The opening up of the group by social and political means is SUNSTEIN's method of choice to combat extremism.
So what happened in Ireland? I'd venture that it was not enhanced deliberation that changed people's mind, but something more fundamental. People were confronted with the consequences of their intended actions. They knew that this time around they'd risk expulsion from the EU, should their assent fail to materialise. The consequences were hardly foreseeable, but ominous, and they felt the risk not worth taking.
Opinions come cheap. We can have many, often even extreme opinions. We can become radical in our views when inside a group. But in the end, what counts is not what we think, but what is done. And before acting we must confront the likely consequences of our actions. At which point we may quickly change our mind - individually or collectively. Extremism, in my view, is very much evidence of dissonance between opinion and consequences. Simply being in a group exacerbates the problem: there consequences diffuse and dissipate. Combating extremism might then be also or foremost a matter of reducing this dissonance by improving the feed-back and accountability mechanisms to the individual and the group (juries award horrific damages because the award does not come out of their pockets; murderers often kill because they expect to get away with it).
On how to do so SUNSTEIN is mostly silent. Worse, he does not even put it at the centre of the discussion, though it should be at least at par with better deliberative structures (SUNSTEIN mentions `consequentialism' at pg. 132, but it is just a deliberative tool).
A good point (though one that gets lost under the heading: "Good extremism") is that new ideas have a greater chance to emerge in small groups. Just as allopatry brings forth speciation, isolated groups can generate a variety of novel ideas, some good, and many bad. Once they stand, they must be subjected to general deliberation and eventual vetting. Minorities are a dynamic and disruptive element in society.
SUNSTEIN discusses the MILGRAM and Stanford experiments at length. I'm not sure that they tell us anything. They are akin to disabling a car's steering wheel and brakes in order to prove that the car is dangerous when in motion. In any psychological experiment reality is replaced by the artificial and very summary experimental framework. The participant is asked to adopt and adapt. Having been asked to forego his moral compass, why are we surprised that he has none?
Yet another account of complex phenomena put into common and understandable language.
If you would like to see the same thesis (how we get into cognitive opposition with each other and lock in) treated from a broader perspective (politics, business, marriage, family) try Mistakes Were Made but Not By Me (Carol Tavris, Elliott Aronson.)
It is attractive, perhaps, that commentators are able to understand why the creation of groups of like-minded people, created to make decisions, such as committees of government, or panels of federal court judges, can lead to extremity rather than moderation. It is interesting to see that there are social forces that can lead to extremism and we need not always assume some characteristic of the people, their personality or their pathology, leads to extremity. This is a service performed by this book. But it may be a message that now itself needs moderation.
There is evidence becoming available that suggests that the formation of groups of people who form groups with different compositions, among such differences being variations in the average extremity of the opinions held, can lead not to polarization but rather to moderation. These studies are not done with college students or with ideologically extreme individuals, as has been the case with the bulk of the evidence presented by Sunstein. They are carried out with a range of voters across the political spectrum, everyday people leading everyday lives.
So, we must be wary of the evidence. The message of the book is that like-mindedness can lead to polarization of belief. That, as something which makes us question fundamental beliefs about personality and about the power of groups, is important. But the book also perhaps is speaking to the same kind of audience; we read what we like and already believe and we are reinforced in our beliefs and are led to a greater degree of extremity. We also need to read and to be exposed to evidence that is contrary to what we think or what we want to believe. Challenge can lead to moderation. In these times of increasing extremity of opinions about matters of the causes and effects of climate change, of changes in health care policy, on decisions about troop commitments etc, information that can affect the character of debate that can moderate rather than polarize would be better.
This book is good, so far as what it does. At this time perhaps there is a case for doing something different.