Cass R. Sunstein: We should break out of information cocoons

09/13/2012 12:00 AM

09/13/2012 7:11 AM

How do you know what you know? You undoubtedly have firsthand knowledge about many things. With respect to innumerable issues, including political ones, most of what we know is what we learn from other people. By itself, that is inevitable and nothing to lament.

But here is the problem: When we listen mostly to people who already agree with us, our pre-existing convictions get fortified, and we start to think that those who disagree with us are evil, dumb or duped. Is it any wonder that our politics are highly polarized, so much so that it sometimes seems as if Democrats and Republicans don’t merely disagree but live in different universes?

A few years ago, I participated in some experiments designed to shed light on how people’s political beliefs are formed. My co-authors and I assembled a number of people in Colorado into all-liberal groups and all-conservative groups. We asked the groups to discuss three issues: climate change, affirmative action and civil unions for same-sex couples.

We requested group members to state their opinions at three stages. The first occurred before they started to talk, when we recorded their views privately and anonymously. In the second stage, we asked them to discuss the issues with one another and then to reach a kind of group “verdict.” In the final stage, we asked people to record their views, after discussion, privately and anonymously.

On all three issues, both liberal and conservative groups became more unified and more extreme after members talked among themselves. Not only in their public verdicts but also in their private, anonymous statements of views.

Why do groups polarize in this way? One reason involves people’s concern for their reputations. If you find yourself in a group of people who hate affirmative action, you might be reluctant to say that you like affirmative action, and your agreement with the group in a public setting might affect what you say privately.

The more interesting reason involves the exchange of information. In conservative groups, for example, people tend to offer a number of arguments against affirmative action, and very few in favor of it. Having heard the set of arguments in their group, people become more confident, more unified and more extreme.

Can anything be done to address this problem? The most obvious answer is to break out of information cocoons. That is a central goal of the American constitutional system, which was devised to ensure that diverse people would speak with one another.

When escape proves difficult, it helps to insist on the importance of respecting technical expertise. In dealing with patients with diabetes, doctors don’t polarize; they consult the latest medical evidence.

We have to be cautious here, because specialists in some fields – including economics – polarize on some issues. But we shouldn’t underestimate the number of cases in which specialists really do come to consensus. In politics and government, a healthy respect for technical expertise usually helps to anchor discussion.

Many of our political convictions are intensely held, especially in an election season. Some of us are undoubtedly right. But an appreciation of how we know what we know should help to engender a healthy dose of humility, making political campaigns far more productive and sensible governance far more likely.

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