Questioning the Quantified Life   /   Summer 2020   /    Book Reviews

O imitators, you slavish herd!

In the event you needed any further bad news in this year of the coronavirus pandemic, you’ll find it in this piercing, distressing, and shaming account of our tendency to follow the herd.

Christopher Sandford

Islandstock/Alamy Stock Photo.

Reading Under the Influence, Robert H. Frank’s collection of discursive meditations on the way in which social environments affect our behavior (on the whole, much for the worse) took me back to the dark ages of the 1970s when I was an undergraduate reading history at Cambridge. The doom-mongers were in the ascendant in Britain back then, and with some reason. It was an era of Dickensian gloom, when much of the country lay quite literally at a standstill. Much of the nation’s road and rail network was immobilized either by snow or labor strikes. Britain’s coal miners walked off the job in a protracted dispute that crippled the national power grid, leaving us to sit around in unheated rooms, our televisions off, reading flimsily produced newspapers by candlelight. There may have been no village in the remote Carpathians quite as primitive as London in the hangover years following the Swinging Sixties.

As I recall, the leading lights at Cambridge never spoke about a “topic” or an “issue,” but rather of a “crisis,” a word that Frank, professor of management and economics at Cornell University, also uses at frequent intervals throughout his book as he guides the reader—with dramatic asides, furious double takes, and unceasing cries of surprise—through the ways in which social influence has corrupted our daily lives.

“It is compellingly in our interest to exert at least some collective control over the social forces that shape our choices,” Frank informs us early on. “We face [an] existential threat from the climate crisis,” he continues later, before uncritically quoting the first line of David Wallace-Wells’s 2019 book The Uninhabitable Earth, with its fuzzy and scientifically questionable remarks such as the one referring to “satellite data showing the globe warming since 1988, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought.” Frank adds, “If temperature increases come anything close to the [United Nations’] projections, many hundreds of millions of people will die.… Much of the earth’s wealth will be destroyed.”

And that’s just in the prologue. In the event you needed any further bad news in this year of the coronavirus pandemic, you’ll find it in this piercing, distressing, shaming, and—it has to be said—occasionally hard-going account of our tendency to follow the herd when it comes to adopting ideas and habits that infect populations like, well, a communicable disease. Our modern propensity to buy bigger televisions or smarter phones so we can keep up with our friends or neighbors is unsparingly detailed here, with the help of numerous diagrams and charts, as is the “behavioral contagion” that the author believes is fueling the world’s climate crisis. The social and economic initiatives required to avoid our wholesale self-destruction as a race are evoked in these seemingly unobjectionable terms:

A more steeply progressive income tax, or, better still, an even more steeply progressive consumption tax, would sharply reduce economic inequality while simultaneously generating vast sums for investment in green technology.… Neither of these policies, nor the imposition of a revenue-neutral carbon tax, would require painful sacrifice from anyone.

It’s a seductive argument. And as with so many social-engineering initiatives in our modern world, it’s one that might inadvertently give the greatest benefit to wealthier citizens. The reason is simple: People with a small income must allocate most of it to necessities, while those with a large income can save a substantial portion. A straight consumption tax tends to be the most burdensome on those struggling to get by, particularly the elderly, who are in many cases on fixed incomes. Consider, for example, the case of a 65-year-old man who retires on the day a progressive tax such as the one Frank advocates takes effect. While this man worked, his income exceeded consumption, and he paid income taxes. Now, in his golden years—when in all likelihood consumption will exceed income—he will be required to pay consumption taxes. It doesn’t seem to offer the traditional promise of a comfortable retirement after a lifetime of dutifully playing by the rules. But these mere “human” costs of a fundamental shift in our nation’s financial system are overlooked in Frank’s book.

Analysis of the ways in which peer pressure shapes our behavior goes a long way toward explaining everything from the opioid crisis to wasteful energy use, and for that matter helps illustrate why so many American homes look like showrooms for Best Buy. Could we all make do with less? Of course we could. Frank expounds on the regrettable outcomes of peer pressure—for instance, how the acquisition of more devices and connectivity paradoxically brings with it a heightened sense of isolation. But is the solution that we rapidly and collectively embrace the Green New Deal, with its injunctions about retrofitting every building in America, outlawing air travel, and somehow addressing bovine flatulence? “Critics charge that ambitious proposals like [this] may stand little chance of success,” Frank observes, “to which proponents counter that incrementalism will almost certainly continue to enshrine the status quo.”

To combat this gradual approach, Frank calls for expanding the role of government in all our lives rather than believing in Americans’ willingness to curb the worst excesses of their behavior. “Urging people to adopt more environmentally friendly consumption habits will help, but won’t be nearly enough,” he writes. “To succeed, we must marshal every resource at our disposal, including robust changes in public policy.”

No book whose subject is the obsessive acquisitiveness and generally degraded pop culture of our times can be wholly without merit. Despite the occasional longueurs, Frank is an able enough writer, usually intelligible, sometimes engaging, and capable of the odd penetrating insight. “It’s a magnificent thing to be alive in a moment that matters so much,” he informs us, in an aphorism written before the onset of COVID-19. His chapters have the sweep of miniature biographies, as we are introduced to ordinary Americans whose definition of materialism might glaze a Kardashian’s eye, and are shown extraordinary everyday happenings, pathological addictions, and surreal case studies, such as the Saudi crown prince who casually put down $300 million in cash to buy a mock–Louis XIV chateau.

In addition, any book that dwells on the word “contagion” has a ghastly topicality to it, even if the author applies it here not in the medical sense but in cataloging our human propensity to smoke, drink to excess, shop beyond our means, drive wastefully, and otherwise engage in activities inimical to our health, and the environment’s, largely because our friends and neighbors do so. In that sense, it’s a salutary tale of self-destructive consumer excess, and anyone doubting the existence of the phenomenon need only visit the nearest fast-food outlet or witness the mob scenes around the local Walmart when Black Friday next comes around—provided we’ve all been released from house arrest by then—to get a flavor of the problem. It’s just a pity that Frank knits his story together with such a generally cold and censorious eye, and a certain amount of amazement that the human race has even made it this far.