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Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide [Hardcover]

Cass R. Sunstein
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

9 July 2009
Why do people become extremists? What makes people become so dismissive of opposing views? Why is political and cultural polarization so pervasive in America? Why do groups of teenagers, investors, and corporations take unnecessary risks? What leads groups to engage in such destructive acts as terrorism and ethic cleansing?
In Going to Extremes, renowned legal scholar and best-selling author Cass Sunstein offers startling insights into why and when people gravitate toward extremism. Sunstein marshals an abundance of evidence that shows that when like-minded people talk to one another, they tend to become more extreme in their views than they were before. This point applies to such diverse groups as religious organizations, corporate boards, investment clubs, and White House officials. Sunstein introduces original research to show that when liberals are brought together to debate climate change, they end up more alarmed about climate change, while conservatives brought together to discuss same-sex unions become skeptical about same-sex unions. In courtrooms, radio stations, and chatrooms, enclaves of like-minded people are breeding ground for extreme movements.
Sunstein shows that a good way to create an extremist group, or a cult of any kind, is to separate members from the rest of society, either physically or psychologically. This disturbing finding casts new light on the dangers that arise whenever people self-select into niche groups of the like-minded. Sunstein's findings help to explain such diverse phenomena as political outrage on the Internet, unanticipated "blockbusters" in the film and music industry, the success of the disability rights movement, ethnic conflict in Iraq and former Yugoslavia, and Islamic terrorism.
Providing a wealth of real-world examples—sometimes entertaining, sometimes alarming— Sunstein offers a fresh explanation of why partisanship has become so bitter and debate so rancorous in America and abroad—and of what concrete steps citizens and nations might take to halt the drift towards unjustified extremism.

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Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide + Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge + On Rumours: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA; 1 edition (9 July 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195378016
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195378016
  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 14.6 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 139,032 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

Timely and absorbing book. (Boyd Tonkin, The Observer)

About the Author


Cass R. Sunstein is the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama Administration and the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University. He is the author of many books, including the New York Times best-seller Nudge (with Richard Thaler), Infotopia, Republic 2.0, Worst-Case Scenarios, Radicals in Robes, Why Societies Need Dissent, and Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The merits and dangers of consensus 8 Jun 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The book starts with something we all know, that it is more pleasant to talk with people that agree with you than with those that disagree with you. What we do not realize is that by acting this way we become "polarized". As all agree with what we think we start to believe that what we think is true. The author Cass Sunstein does an excellent job to make you aware of this happening and the consequences.

An extreme example is terrorists that form groups with extreme polarization. Most of these terrorists have experienced moral outrage, personal experience of discrimination, economic exclusion, even though many are well educated and come from middle-class families.

Polarization can be bad but also good like overthrowing the Lenin Communist system in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, or abolishing slavery in the United States.

The author presents his view as to what can be done to avoid bad polarization and tolerate good polarization. He believes the only answer is free speech and tolerance; acceptance and respect for diverse views, for diversity. He points out that dictatorships are breeding grounds for terrorism. Polarized groups objecting to dictatorships do not trust what the dictatorships claim to be the truth. Discrimination and outrage do the rest.

It is also relevant for business. Leaders that act like dictators will before or after their death ruin the company. A board of directors must contain members with different perspectives that forcefully argue with each other and management. Also at the level of management vigorous arguments about different perspectives are essential.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating tour into the sociology of extremism 25 July 2011
By Rolf Dobelli TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
This fascinating tour of the sociology of extremism provides a general description of its impact on society and describes specific tactics for leaders and managers who want to foster open discussion while promoting a democratic workplace. Harvard Law School professor Cass R. Sunstein addresses polarization by presenting results from numerous studies. Polarization affects every group interaction, including those of lawyers, judges, doctors, elected officials and the military. getAbstract recommends this book to those interested in promoting open discussions or in preventing pathologies that create mob behaviors and even genocide.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fools seldom differ? 25 Sep 2009
By Dr. Nicholas P. G. Davies TOP 1000 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an excellent short, punchy and important book. It contains some very useful ideas, both for personal use, and which will help us in business and political settings.

Its basic point is two fold. Firstly that birds of a feather flock together. Secondly, as they do this they tend to narrow their field of options, and magnify each other's prejudices and misconceptions.

This phenomenon which affects all of us up to a point, becomes dangerous quickly, particularly when we do not accept the discipline of wide reading or other exposure to many different people and ideas. One of the privileges of working as a doctor is that by default I meet people from most walks of life, and learn a lot about them, and about how to adapt my style to meet the needs of different patients. The medicine is the same- but my presentation of it alters according to who I am treating. My medical experience has led to me becoming more moderate over time, and to recognition that there are often many options to approach any one particular problem.

The opposite of meeting, learning and debating with many others is the in group, the phenomenon of looking for reinforcement of previous prejudices, rather than for new knowledge, or counter examples. The extreme of this in group thinking, and ignoring, or misinterpreting the rest of the world is seen in terrorism, and other single issue fanaticisms.

Sunstein has done us a great favour by summarising the cognitive work needed to be done to become a dogmatic fanatic or terrorist, and by showing us what we need to do to avoid this.

Some degree of associating with birds of a feather is useful (e.g. a learned society, a local football club) in terms of sharing experience and developing focused expertise.
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The merits and dangers of consensus 8 Jun 2009
By laurens van den muyzenberg - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The book starts with something we all know, that it is more pleasant to talk with people that agree with you than with those that disagree with you. What we do not realize is that by acting this way we become "polarized". As all agree with what we think we start to believe that what we think is true. The author Cass Sunstein does an excellent job to make you aware of this happening and the consequences.

An extreme example is terrorists that form groups with extreme polarization. Most of these terrorists have experienced moral outrage, personal experience of discrimination, economic exclusion, even though many are well educated and come from middle-class families.

Polarization can be bad but also good like overthrowing the Lenin Communist system in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, or abolishing slavery in the United States.

The author presents his view as to what can be done to avoid bad polarization and tolerate good polarization. He believes the only answer is free speech and tolerance; acceptance and respect for diverse views, for diversity. He points out that dictatorships are breeding grounds for terrorism. Polarized groups objecting to dictatorships do not trust what the dictatorships claim to be the truth. Discrimination and outrage do the rest.

It is also relevant for business. Leaders that act like dictators will before or after their death ruin the company. A board of directors must contain members with different perspectives that forcefully argue with each other and management. Also at the level of management vigorous arguments about different perspectives are essential. What the author omits is the importance that after vigorous argument in boards and management a decision taken must be supported 100% by all the members of the board and of top management.

The book also enriches your vocabulary and concepts with words like: conspiracy entrepreneur, interactive echo-chamber, first and second order diversity, enclave deliberation, public forum doctrine, informational cascade and more.

Finally the book gets off to a slow start but towards the end it becomes exciting to read.
The Leader's Way: Business, Buddhism and Happiness in an Interconnected World
13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent. The OIRA is going to be in excellent hands. Read why. 24 May 2009
By Gaetan Lion - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Sunstein will soon run the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). This Agency conducts cost benefit analysis of regulations. So, it is interesting to know Sunstein mindset. Sunstein is also the coauthor of the excellent Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness where he fleshes out his political philosophy of Liberal Paternalism. After reading those two books, you get a feeling that the OIRA will be in extremely capable hands. Sunstein has a powerful and inquisitive intellect. He is also an excellent writer as his books are very easy to read despite covering rather dry topics.

Homogeneous groups polarize as they cause like-minded people to strengthen their positions by eliminating the balancing safeguard from diverging opinions. Sunstein demonstrates that no category individuals is exempt from this behavior. Even Federal judges were victim of it as their verdict were politically more polarized when they belonged to an homogeneous political panel (all three Judges from same political party) vs when they were not.

Regarding risk taking endeavors, if individuals are moderate risk avoiders after deliberating they will become more so. If they are moderate risk takers, the group will render them more extreme risk takers.

Group polarization occurs because individuals only exchange information that reinforces their initial views and exclude info that does not. Group polarization is stealthy. You join a group of like-minded people. You approve of what they say. Before you know it they turned you into an extremist.

The Bush Administration was an insular polarizing group. Independent views were not solicited. A better model is Abraham Lincoln "Team of Rivals" that Obama is emulating. Here independent minded experts are nominated to create an internal debate with a broad range of opinions. Similarly, well functioning corporate boards contain clashing viewpoints and challenging questions. These points are a tribute to the power of checks and balances including the value of creating Teams of Rivals even in domains in which leaders usually seek team players.

Local communities are subject to polarization as people cluster into areas of like-minded people and become adamant about our political views as depicted by Bill Bishop in The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. Similarly, corporations are polarizing groups where employees are exaggerating the positive outlook of their employers and are dismissive of competitors.

Group polarization can go terribly wrong. Sunstein explains the Rwanda genocide, the Holocaust, terrorism, Abu Ghraib abuses through group polarization leading to violent extremism. He refers to the social experiments of Milgram, where normal people gave others really high electric shocks just to answer questions. He also refers to Zimbardo Stanford Prison experiment where students were divided in two groups: guards and prisoners. The guards became so cruel, the experiment was aborted to preserve the welfare of the "prisoners." The underlying finding is that given circumstances moral people can do horrible things. This issue has triggered a debate between the "dispositionists" and the "situationists." The dispositionists believe cruelty is a matter of individual disposition. The situationists believe it is a matter of situation. This is a Nature vs Nurture argument. Milgram and Zimbardo experiments are red flags that normal people can become cruel. However, people did observe "good" guards that were not cruel in the Stanford Prison Experiment and Abu Ghraib. But, where these few saints exceptions that confirm the rule? To study this further, read Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

Sunstein also connects the dots between group polarization and Irving Janis Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. The two concepts overlap. But, he states that group polarization better explains extremism (moving one's opinion towards an extreme) than groupthink. But, in many group decisions the two concepts are identical.

Sunstein indicates information cascades cause investment bubbles. Robert Shiller calls them social contagion; whereby we start believing something because everybody else does. In the late 90s, we thought the sky was the limit for Internet stocks. See Shiller Irrational Exuberance. Just three years later we jumped into the next information cascade: home prices always go up. See Shiller The Subprime Solution: How Today's Global Financial Crisis Happened, and What to Do about It.

Information cascades also entail peer pressure. He calls those reputational cascades. You are afraid to hold a diverging opinion from the consensus so as to not become socially ostracized. He uses the global warming view that it will produce catastrophic harm in the very near term as an example. Such a reputational cascade was typefied by Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It. Bjorn Lomborg wrote a balanced rebuttal Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming (Vintage). But, the rhetorical debate was over before it began. Gore's 'Inconvenient Truth' became a worldwide reputational cascade recompensing Gore with a Nobel Price and an Oscar Award. Meanwhile, Bjorn Lomborg remained in obscurity outside of Denmark.

Sunstein covers terrorism in depth. He refers to the excellent work of Krueger in What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism (New Edition) indicating that terrorists are not who we think. They are well educated often middle class and not mentally ill. But, they often live in societies that lack civil rights and liberties. And, terrorism becomes a last resort form of political protest for the ones who are inclined to violence (the disposisionist argument resurfaces). Group polarization within terrorist groups plays a huge role. Per Sunstein terrorists are not born, they are normal individuals who become polarized.

To prevent group polarization, Sunstein promotes free flow of information so that a group checks its position against external references, conducting cost-benefit analysis. Group diversity is also key so diverging opinions are expressed.

Sunstein explains the The Wisdom of Crowds with the Condercet Jury theorem. Groups generate better overall decisions than individuals so long as the Majority rule is used and each person is more likely than not to be correct. If either of those conditions are not met than group decisions are worst than individuals.

Dictatorships are less successful than democracies in war because democracies have better access to information. Careful studies show that democracies do well in fighting wars in part because they do not start wars if they are not likely to win them.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating tour into the sociology of extremism 25 July 2011
By Rolf Dobelli - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This fascinating tour of the sociology of extremism provides a general description of its impact on society and describes specific tactics for leaders and managers who want to foster open discussion while promoting a democratic workplace. Harvard Law School professor Cass R. Sunstein addresses polarization by presenting results from numerous studies. Polarization affects every group interaction, including those of lawyers, judges, doctors, elected officials and the military. getAbstract recommends this book to those interested in promoting open discussions or in preventing pathologies that create mob behaviors and even genocide.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Too High or Too Low, There Ain't no in-betweens 31 Jan 2014
By L. Drutman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Back in 2005, a trio of researchers conducted a little experiment on deliberative democracy. They assembled groups of six citizens and asked them to get together to talk about a few politically charged issues (civil unions, affirmative action, global warming). Half the groups were made up exclusively of political conservatives, and half were made up exclusively of political liberals. The result: in almost every group, the individuals took on more extreme positions after talking with the folks who already agreed with them.

Similarly, a study of judicial decision-making found three-judge panels that were all Republican rendered more conservative decisions and three-judge panels that were all Democrat rendered more liberal decisions.

The above experiment and study form the take-off point for Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, by Cass R. Sunstein, a smart book (now available in paperback!) that sets forth a pithy summary of how group polarization happens. It’s an especially useful guide to the obstacles to open-minded thinking for those of us who are trying to chart a course toward a more moderate politics, and so worth understanding.

The quick takeaway point is that what matters most is information. If you only hear one side of the argument, you are likely to strengthen your convictions that the one side you hear is the correct side. And the more your convictions are strengthened, the more you are likely to seek out only that one side and disregard anyone who comes to you with alternatives. In short, a powerful reinforcing feedback loop.

“A great deal of what we believe, like, and dislike,” writes Sunstein, “is influenced by the exchange of information and by corroboration.”

Sunstein explores a number of entry points into these kinds of reinforcing cascades of corroboration. A surprisingly large number of the entry points have more to do with social instincts than anything else. Individuals defer to other individuals who are of higher status; they defer to family and friends and social groups. Most people want to be liked, and most people have an intuitive sense that a good way to be liked is to agree – or sometimes to even do those whose respect they wish to gain one better. Groups are particular prone to follow confident people – even if those confident people are wrong.

Once people start in on a particular belief path, they tend to be on the lookout for information that confirms what they already think: “Consider the well-established finding that after purchasing a product, people tend to seek out information confirming that their purchase was a sensible one.” And once caught in a cascade of confirmation, it’s hard to get out of it. Sociologists call it “homophily” – a process by which people feel more connected to that which is similar to them.

The problem, Sunstein argues (borrowing a phrase from Russell Hardin) is that most people have a “crippled epistemology” – they know very little to begin with, and if what they know supports their extremism, they have no way to know that their position is extreme.

Worse, “people often ignore powerful contrary evidence,” writes Sunstein. “When people’s false beliefs are corrected, they might become even firmer in their commitment to those beliefs.” (One famous example of this is described in Leon Festinger’s 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, about how members of a UFO cult become more resolute in its beliefs after the group leader’s prophecy that aliens from the planet Clarion would rescue cult members from an earth-destroying flood on December 21, 1954 did not come to fruition)

Sunstein worries that in the modern media environment, self-selection into different camps is easier than ever before. “Many people appear to be hearing more and louder versions of their own views, thus reducing the benefits that come from exposure to competing views and unnoticed problems…The Internet creates more dramatic ‘stratification.’”

The way out of polarization, of course, is the standard bromide of entertaining alternative viewpoints. Sunstein urges “humility and curiosity.” In fact, after reading this article, you should probably immediately go seek out a perspective you disagree with, entertain it, and let it create a slight sense of doubt in all your previous certainties.

But the truth is, you probably won’t go seek that out. Or even if you do, it’s unlikely you will come to doubt your previous ideas. One reason is that what you find will probably be written from a completely different perspective, meaning that it won’t have much to say to somebody who isn’t already a true believe from the opposite perspective.

At the very least, it is helpful to have a certain amount of self-awareness. Sunstein’s analysis of how easily and almost effortlessly one can get caught in a self-reinforcing feedback process of one-sidedness is a little bit scary. What’s remarkable is just how easily the mind closes, and how much constant work is required to fight against it. In other words: those of us who care about moderation have our work cut out for ourselves.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How Polarization Happens 12 July 2011
By G.X. Larson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A test subject walks into a room. In the room there are four other "test subjects" (agent provoceteurs) sitting near a projector. The machine projects an image of three lines onto the wall. The lines are similar in length, but one is objectively shorter than the other two. The test subject is asked to decide which of the lines is shortest, if any, and she must discuss with the group. The four other members of the group (actually hired by the experimenter) all agree that the lines are the same length. The test subject does a double take of the projection, then she squints hard at it. She could have sworn that the one on the right was shorter than the others, but then again she has poor eyesight, she says to her self. She ends up agreeing with the four others. Every Psych 101 student is familiar with stories like this one, and almost everyone is familiar with the famous Milgram experiment. Such experiments show how and when an individual can be pushed to falsity and/or extremes.

Author Cass Sunstein is a prominent voice in the behavioral economics field (he is co-author of Nudge) and hence well qualified to write Going to Extremes, a short book on social psychology. The book examines how groups can polarize as well as the circumstances under which groups refrain form polarization. Sunstein gives three good examples of polarization in the early part of his book: Federal judge panels (made of three judges) are more likely to polarize when a panel's ideology is homogeneous; that is, when there are three democratically inclined judges on a panel, the panel's decision is more likely to be strongly in favor of liberal policies, and vice versa with conservative inclined panel. When a panel is characterized with a 2:1 ratio of liberals to conservatives (and vice versa) the decision is likely to be far less polarized. When deliberating punishments, a jury as a group is likely to deliberate to extremes vis a vis individual jurors; that is, an individual juror might merely think of meting out a monetary punishment of $10,000, but after a group deliberation, a jury proper will move to an "extreme" and either decide on a punishment of $50,000 or $1,000. The third example is perhaps most telling and familiar: researchers formed small citizen groups with citizens from the Colorado cities of Boulder and Colorado Springs. Boulder is a more liberal city, while Colorado Springs is a more conservative-inclined city. When a group from Boulder was told to discuss a question like, Should international law do more to combat global warming?, the group was likely to move toward an extreme. The converse was also likely with Colorado Springs' groups.

What explains these phenomena? There are many variables. The obvious one is whether a group is homogeneous in its ideology. Information also plays a key role. If a group of vegans is given a news article exposing that a popular fast food chain treats its animals inhumanely, or that red meat causes cancer, they will almost undoubtedly polarize after discussion, since the new information amplifies their already held convictions. Corroboration can also move individuals in extreme directions even if the group members begin a discussion unsure of their beliefs. In such a case, if each group member is equally uncertain about, for example, whether torture is wrong, but all members have the same information (for example, torture helped get Osama bin Laden), then after discussion the group is likely to polarize in favor of torture. Reputation can be a key catalyst as well: a group member who emits the appearance of knowledge can push others to extremes due to the said person is perceived as being correct; even if some of the other group members' opinions conflict with the person with the reputation, they will often yield to him or her. (A year ago I was playing Trivial Pursuit with my family and my team was posed with the question: Who was the leader of the Soviet Union when the Berlin Wall was constructed? "Stalin!", I shouted. "I just read a book on it!" To my embarrassment the answer was Nikita Khrushchev, but my team yielded to my conviction because they perceived me as being knowledgeable and having the correct answer.)

Similarly, reputation acts to influence individuals insofar as they are concerned about their reputations. (Contrast this with the idea of reputation above, where individuals yielded to others who they perceived has having good reputations.) Here's an example copied form the book, "Suppose that a group of doctors is deciding what steps to take to resusciate apparently doomed patients. Are individual doctors less likely, or more likely, to support heroic efforts than teams of doctors?" Individual doctors are less likely because their reputations are not in jeopardy when acting alone, out of the eyesight of other doctors. A team of doctors is more likely to support heroic efforts because each individual doctor will yield to the "rhetorical advantage", where the rhetorical advantage is to do whatever it takes to save a life. That is to say, an individual in a team of doctors does not want his reputation to be tainted by opposing the sanctity of human life.

Above are just a few examples of polarization. Sunstein's book is an excellent survey of when, how, and why polarization happens, as well as when, how, and why it often doesn't happen.
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