We seek consensus about the Book of Mormon. Joseph F. Smith wrote, "If you have built for a man a better house than his own, and he is willing to accept yours and forsake his, then, and not till then, should you proceed to tear down the old structure. Rotten though it may be it will require some time for it to lose all its charms and fond memories of its former occupant. Therefore let him, not you, proceed to tear it away. Kindness and courtesy are the primal elements of gentility."
The prevalence of a spirit of contention amongst a people is a certain sign of deadness with respect to the things of religion. When men's spirits are hot with contention, they are cold to religion. - Jonathan Edwards
Our urge to obey authority is powerful. But our drive to conform is greater.
Cass Sunstein’s new book, Conformity: The Power of Social Influences, delivers a brisk and accessible overview of research from social psychology, economics, and political science on how people behave in groups. Sunstein, a Harvard professor and alumnus of the Obama Administration, discusses the dangers of conformity and ideological groupthink in structuring a society and its various institutions. Sunstein, moreover, examines how viewpoint diversity can serve as a bulwark against group polarization and institutional rot. Indeed, any organization, system, or society which does not incentivize freedom of expression and public dissent is one that is doomed to fail....
For many people, conformity sparks mental images of sheep doing what they’re told. But in fact, at the outset, Sunstein notes that conformity has its advantages. We lack information about science, health, politics, and so on. Not only that, but we simply don’t have the time to assess every option presented before us. Oftentimes, the most rational course of action is to follow the choices of those we trust. We are natural conformers because, more often than not, it keeps us alive and in good standing with our peers. But sometimes it can lead us to disaster.
Consider group polarization, the topic of one of the chapters. In short, social psychologists have found that when individuals hold certain beliefs, those beliefs are magnified when they interact with others who hold similar beliefs. In a study on jury behavior, researchers gave jurors an 8-point scale to measure how severely they wanted to punish a law-breaker. They found that when individual jurists preferred high punishment, the overall verdict ended up higher than that recommended by the median juror. Put differently, when individual jurors preferred a severe punishment, deliberation with other jurors sharing this view raised the overall severity of the punishment. One juror might say they want to impose a fine of $10,000 while another might say that anything less than $12,000 is unacceptable. By the end, the fine might increase to an amount far beyond anyone’s initial starting point. On the flip side, Sunstein reports that groups comprised of lenient jurors produced even more lenient verdicts than the one recommended by the median juror in the group. When group members drift in a certain direction, individual members will double down on that perspective to show their commitment. This drives the group towards extremism despite individual members not being extremists themselves....
The Conformity Paradox
Then there are what Sunstein calls “affective ties.” Plainly, dissent can disrupt social harmony, which is not always the best course of action when interacting with our peers. As the book puts it, “Some forms of dissent might correct mistakes while also weakening social bonds.” This can be risky. The choice we face is a difficult one. Do we share our views, introducing information that could improve group decision-making, or do we go along to get along, preserving our social relationships in the process? When we are bonded by affective ties, the latter option is often more appealing. But for Sunstein, the first option offers indisputable long-term benefits.
The problem with conformity is that it deprives a society of the information it desperately needs. Sunstein rightly asserts that conformists are often viewed as protectors of the social interest while dissenters are seen as selfish individualists, calling attention to themselves and disrupting the status quo. This is not always the case. The dissenter challenges the status quo, introducing new ideas that may aid his group by improving an ailing system. The conformist is reticent, choosing to live in comfort as his group blunders.