The Power of Dissent

Cass R. Sunstein teaches law at the University of Chicago and is the author of "Why Societies Need Dissent" (Harvard University Press, 2002).

Successful organizations, in government and elsewhere, need dissenting opinions. If citizens are to be secure, leaders must encourage disagreement and skepticism. This is the largest lesson of the recent report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board -- a stunning document whose implications go far beyond the space program.

What accounted for the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its seven-member crew? The board attributes the accident to NASA’s unfortunate culture, one that discourages dissent. In the board’s words, NASA lacks “checks and balances.” It pressures people to follow a “party line.” At NASA, “it is difficult for minority and dissenting opinions to percolate up through the agency’s hierarchy” -- even though, the board says, effective safety programs require the encouragement of minority opinions and bad news.

The board’s report is only the latest in a growing body of research from many domains. Failed corporations, such as Enron, WorldCom and Tyco, often have a NASA-like culture, characterized by unrealistic optimism and pressures toward conformity. Companies do better with contentious boards of directors that treat dissent as a duty.


Similarly, studies have shown that private investment clubs tend to lose a lot of money if their members know each other well, like each other, eat dinner together and discourage open debate (whereas financial returns are highest in clubs whose members have limited social contact and welcome criticism and disagreement).

My research shows that on a three-judge panel, a Republican-appointed judge is often far more likely to vote conservatively when sitting with two other Republican appointees than when sitting with at least one Democratic appointee. The same is true for Democratic judges, whose liberal tendencies are dramatically amplified when they sit on all-Democratic panels.

Without knowing it, the Columbia investigators were identifying a pervasive social problem, one that unites these examples and that leads to many failures in the public and private sectors. In military circles, this process is called “incestuous amplification.” Among psychologists, it is known as “group polarization.”

In a nutshell: Like-minded people, talking only with one another, usually end up believing a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk.

One reason for this is that when people’s views are confirmed by others, they tend to become more confident and more extreme. Another reason is that most people are loath to come down on the wrong side of an issue on which there seems to be consensus.

American researchers David Myers and G.D. Bishop show that white high school students who were unlikely to show racial prejudice became still less likely after discussions with one another -- and that white students who tended to show racial prejudice are more likely to do so after talking together.


We can safely predict that people who dislike President Bush, or fear global warming, or approve of the United Nations will adopt a more extreme version of their views if they speak mostly or only with one another.

The Columbia board also identified the biggest problem created by group polarization: missing information. When leaders and groups cherish consensus, conformist pressures prevent group members from informing others of their private concerns and doubts. Blunders and even catastrophes are possible results. The Columbia disaster is merely one illustration. Is it too much to speculate that our current difficulties in Iraq are another?

What can be done to reduce this problem? The Columbia Accident Investigation Board emphasized the need for NASA to develop a distinctive kind of culture, one that discourages deference to leaders, sees dissent as an obligation, promotes independent analysis and insists on a wide range of voices. The broadest lesson is simple. Well-functioning organizations discourage conformity and encourage dissent -- partly to protect the rights of dissenters but mostly to promote interests of their own.