Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide

By Cass R. Sunstein | Oxford University Press | 208 pages, $21.95

The prefix “pop”—as in “popular”—tends to exert an instantaneous derogatory effect on whatever word has the misfortune to follow it. If you have pretensions to intellectual heft, it’s hard to imagine a worse insult than to see your writing classified as a specimen of “pop culture” (or “pop science” or, worst of all, “pop psychology”). While it may well be to our collective detriment to assume that popularity compromises intellectual legitimacy, one nonetheless hesitates to describe a work of obvious academic rigor as “pop”-anything.

And yet it must be said: Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide is a work of… pop behavioral science. With a bit of pop sociology, pop cognitive theory, pop political theory—and, yes, pop psychology—thrown in for good measure.

In this case, though, the prefix isn’t an insult. The author of Going to Extremes is Cass Sunstein, the public intellectual known both for his prolific writing (he churns out a book approximately as often as most people replace their toothbrushes) and for his focus on the practical application of those writings. Sunstein, in other words, is that rare intellectual hybrid for whom broad cultural relevance is a kind of badge of honor, rather than an ironic affront—his pop, as it were, comes with both snap and crackle.

Officially, Sunstein is a legal scholar, with a focus on constitutional law (hence his long friendship with fellow constitutional scholar Barack Obama). But his areas of expertise, based on his writings thus far, also include behavioral economics, Wikipedia, pornography, insecticide, cloning, political organization, animal rights, genocide, and the lyrics of Bob Dylan. Sunstein’s name has popped up on many a Supreme Court shortlist. He is, according to his speaking-engagement bio, “the most-cited law professor on any faculty in the United States.” His work is cited so widely, in fact, that a group of legal scholars published a 2007 paper entitled “Six Degrees of Cass Sunstein,” which posits him as the Kevin Bacon of Legal Academia. It is only partially joking.

Prolific output tends to be the result either of an abundant mind or an undisciplined one. The quality of Sunstein’s intellectual oeuvre suggests the former—and his latest book further confirms that diagnosis. The core premise of Going to Extremes is simple, yet just counterintuitive and creative enough to be interesting. When people find themselves in groups of like-minded types, goes the argument, they are especially likely to move to extremes. Crowds may well be wise—but their wisdom, Sunstein suggests, derives from diversity.

The implications of this finding are broad. (And they take on a special relevance in light of Sunstein’s latest role as the Obama administration’s regulatory czar—official title: director of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs—through which he will oversee the FCC, among other bodies.) Through the prism of polarization, Sunstein argues, we can better understand terrorist groups, church groups, genocide, student activism, political movements, and similar social phenomena. “In a wide variety of experimental contexts,” he notes, “people’s opinions have been shown to become more extreme simply because their initial views have been corroborated and because they have become more confident after learning of the shared views of others.” In his view, the collective is a paradoxical entity: more than the sum of its parts, but also the direct result of those parts. “Group polarization is not a social constant,” Sunstein writes. “It can be increased or decreased, or even eliminated, by certain features of group members or their situation.”

The scholar draws on a mixture of original research—an experiment conducted among liberals and conservatives in Colorado—and secondary sources to navigate the civic space between political and social theory. He cites such behavioral-psych staples as Stanley Milgram’s authority/obedience tests, the Stanford prisoner experiment, and the dictator game. Yet Sunstein reassesses and sometimes challenges these landmark experiments. For example, he interprets Milgram’s key finding—the idea that most people crumple in the face of even mild authority—through the lens of group polarization, giving it a slightly rosier glow. Milgram’s subjects, Sunstein argues, were responding to assumed expertise on the part of the authority figure, rather than to authority itself. “Many of the subjects put their moral qualms to one side,” he writes, “not because of blind obedience, but because of a judgment that their qualms are likely to have been ill-founded.”

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.