➔ Kevin Dorst

January 24th, 2019

➔ Kevin Dorst

Why Rational People Polarize

U.S. politics is beset by increasing polarization. Ideological clustering is common; partisan antipathy is increasing; extremity is becoming the norm (Dimock et al. 2014). This poses a serious collective problem. Why is it happening? There are two common strands of explanation.

The first is psychological: people exhibit a number of “reasoning biases” that predictably lead them to strengthen their initial opinions on a given subject matter (Kahneman et al. 1982; Fine 2005). They tend to interpret conflicting evidence as supporting their opinions (Lord et al. 1979); to seek out arguments that confirm their prior beliefs (Nickerson 1998); to become more confident of the opinions shared by their subgroups (Myers and Lamm 1976); and so on.

The second strand of explanation is sociological: the modern information age has made it easier for people to fall into informational traps. They are now able to use social media to curate their interlocutors and wind up in “echo chambers” (Sunstein 2017; Nguyen 2018); to customize their web browsers to construct a “Daily Me” (Sunstein 2009, 2017); to uncritically consume exciting (but often fake) news that supports their views (Vosoughi et al. 2018; Lazer et al. 2018; Robson 2018); and so on.

So we have two strands of explanation for the rise of American polarization. We need both. The psychological strand on its own is not enough: in its reliance on fully general reasoning tendencies, it cannot explain what has changed, leading to the recent rise of polarization. But neither is the sociological strand enough: informational traps are only dangerous for those susceptible to them. Imagine a group of people who were completely impartial in searching for new information, in weighing conflicting studies, in assessing the opinions of their peers, etc. The modern internet wouldn’t force them to end up in echo chambers or filter bubbles—in fact, with its unlimited access to information, it would free them to form opinions based on ever more diverse and impartial bodies of evidence. We should not expect impartial reasoners to polarize, even when placed in the modern information age.

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