Polar Distress

Cass Sunstein on the dynamics of extremism

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.”

Yet very little, in the end, is completely new here. The specific concepts discussed in Going to Extremes—group polarization, informational cascades, rhetorical advantage—will be familiar to followers of Sunstein’s previous writings. Even the original research he cites (his Colorado experiment in particular) has been presented before. Nobody who has followed the author’s previous work on social theory and behavioral psychology will be surprised by his latest production.

But as is often the case among writers of Sunstein’s league, explanatory synthesis, and the elegance of a thesis proved, offer their own kind of value. What Going to Extremes lacks in terms of a broad, spectacular narrative, it makes up for in quiet comprehensiveness.

It helps that Sunstein’s prose is so lucid (which is not to be understood, in this case, as a polite euphemism for “mind-numbingly dull”). He writes with the measured cadence of a social scientist, in crisp sentences that go out of their way to explain themselves. And yet, underscoring Going to Extremes, and bubbling just below all the disciplined coherence, one senses an almost childlike fascination with the world and its workings, which both livens the book’s language and renders its arguments, if not more intellectually compelling, then at least more vividly charismatic than they would be were they articulated in the uniform vocabulary of social science. Occasionally an exclamation mark, like a rogue stowaway from Sunstein’s limbic brain, will make its way into an argument. (“Here is an especially disturbing finding. When people’s false beliefs are corrected, they might even become firmer in those beliefs!”) While some might call the scamp punctuation’s inclusion in the final manuscript a pander to the “pop,” I call it delightful.

Where Going to Extremes really shines, however, is in its other rare breakthrough moments: when it abandons explanation for exploration—when Sunstein uses his aggregated findings to take us somewhere new. And nowhere is this more true than in the book’s discussion of journalism. The tension that Sunstein establishes between the individual and the collective, between the peril and promise of group behavior, reflects an analogous strain in contemporary journalism: the informational desires of the individual versus the informational needs of a democratic citizenry.

The Web, for all the journalistic opportunities it offers, also enables the tyranny of the niche (Sunstein’s term is “cyberbalkanization”). The splintering of civic interest is quickly positioning itself as the bĂȘte-noire of digital-age democracy. It’s not only that the highly customized versions of journalism that are currently guiding the trajectory of innovation (RSS feeds! The Daily Me! mine magazine!) cede too much of the collective interest to the individual. They also deprive us of the simple serendipity of new information. And access to new information, Sunstein reminds us, is key—not merely to democracy, but to group dynamics more generally. “The most important reason for group polarization, and a key to extremism in all its forms, is new information,” he insists. “Group polarization often occurs because people are telling one another what they know, and what they know is skewed in a predictable direction. When they listen to each other, they move.”

The next question is how they move. If individual assumptions are predictors of extremism, as the author argues, then new information is the variable that can make the difference between, broadly, good forms of extremism (the civil rights movement, the American Revolution) and bad. As the behavioral psychologist Philip Zimbardo concluded about his own infamous prison experiment, “The line between Good and Evil, once thought to be impermeable, proved instead to be quite permeable.”

Its title notwithstanding, Going to Extremes is a study in moderation. While the book’s overarching subject is zealotry, and its narrative tension comes courtesy of polarization, Sunstein’s broad destination is the middle ground. Thus his ultimate breakaway moment, in which he ventures from description to prescription: what journalism now needs, he says, is an “architecture of serendipity.” Sunstein calls for a journalistic infrastructure that consciously re-imagines the front page of the dead-tree newspaper, ensuring that citizens will be exposed to the new information that they might not otherwise encounter.

If news organizations and journalistic innovators can overcome paradox to systematize serendipity, they will have a moderating influence, writes Sunstein. “Indeed, the architecture of serendipity is part of a well-functioning system of checks and balances; it helps to check the effects of echo chambers and ensure that those with blinders, or those who prefer information cocoons, occasionally see elsewhere. What they see may change their minds, even their lives.”

The regulator has spoken. The question that remains—and it is one that even the Kevin Bacon of Legal Academia might have trouble answering—is whether the moderate, middle-ground brands of journalism can shout loudly enough to stifle the bellowing of the echo chamber.

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