Many of us become more convinced in our views on any given topic by bouncing them off of our sounding boards, whose worldview often mirrors our own. Feeling validated through these interactions, we march on with our perspectives unaltered. Troublingly, if we allow ourselves to interact only with our like-minded peers, these interactions can and do lead to viewpoints that are fixed, sometimes to the dismissal of all other alternative perspectives. This is the topic of Cass Sunstein’s article, “To Become An Extremist, Hang Around With People You Agree With.”
In it, Sunstein talks about the rather disturbing finding on group dynamics: when people surround themselves with like-minded people, it gives birth to group polarization. Even if initially tentative about their views, people, in numbers, gain greater confidence that their views are correct. Interactions with like-minded people confirm, legitimize, and amplify an individual’s previously-held position, leading to the cementing of their initial viewpoint.
Sunstein explains the reason for like-minded people to go to extremes: “The most important reason for group polarization, which is key to extremism in all its forms, involves the exchange of new information. Group polarization often occurs because people are telling one another what they know, and what they know is skewed in a predictable direction. When they listen to each other, they move…When groups move, they do so in large part because of the impact of information. People tend to respond to the arguments made by other people – and the pool of arguments, in a group with a predisposition in a particular direction, will inevitably be skewed in the direction of the original predisposition…If people are listening, they will have a stronger conviction, in the same direction from which they began, as a result of deliberation.”
A study by James N. Druckman and Kjersten R. Nelson in “Framing and Deliberation: How Citizens’ Conversations Limit Elite Influence” supports this point. They found that “relatively homogenous groups lead to group polarization where ‘an initial tendency of individual group members toward a given direction is enhanced following group discussion.’” In contrast, if groups are comprised of people with opposing views, people’s opinions are less hardened and more aware of alternative viewpoints due to exposure to different perspectives.
Which brings us to the importance of free, independent, and plural media systems. A media system that allows for a wide range of opinions on issues also gives citizens exposure to a diversity of perspectives. This diversity is important, not only because it contributes to the richness, breadth and depth of the available information, but also because it gives people an opportunity to consider alternatives to their original stances. Ideally, the process of digesting various viewpoints would involve discussions and debates with those of the opposing camp and others in between, so that people would be able to challenge their own thinking and arrive at opinions that are informed, both to the benefit of themselves and society. As Sunstein concludes, “if extreme movements are to occur, it should be because they are sensible and right and not because of the predictable effects of interactions among the like-minded.”
Photo credit: Flickr user Ed Yourdon