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On the (dis)benefits of talking only to those who agree with me

“In 1970, two psychologists at a small college in Michigan performed the following experiment. After administering a questionnaire on racial attitudes to seniors at some nearby high schools, they divided the students into groups. Those students who, based on their answers to the questionnaire, exhibited “high prejudice” were placed with others equally biased. Those who expressed “low prejudice” were grouped with those who were similarly tolerant. The students were then instructed to discuss issues like school busing and fair housing. Finally, they were asked to fill out another questionnaire. The surveys revealed a striking pattern: simply by talking to one another, the bigoted students had become more bigoted and the tolerant more tolerant.”

The paragraph above is lifted from the current (Nov. 2) New Yorker, from a fine review by Elizabeth Kolbert of a new book by Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar and currently an Obama Administration official.  The new Sunstein book is “On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done.” Kolbert is interested in things like the “birther” foolishness, in which people who do not want to accept that Barack Obama is president of their country convince themselves that he is not a natural-born citizen in spite of constant affirmation and proof that he was born in Hawaii in 1961. (Says Kolbert of the birthers’ continuing belief that Obama was born in Kenya: “As articles of faith go, this one falls somewhere between a belief in Santa Claus and ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’”) But Kolbert’s is not an article on birtherism, Sunstein’s is not a a book about it and this is not a post about it either.

I was mostly interested in passing along that 1970 psych experiment as a follow-up to a post of a couple of weeks ago called “Turn up the static so I can’t hear what I want to not hear.” That post also featured a psych experiment — one that demonstrated people’s tendency to tune out information that doesn’t agree with or even challenges their pre-existing beliefs.

If you put the two together, you get a fairly alarming picture. Excuse in advance the colossal oversimplification/exaggeration just ahead. It goes like this:

The first experiment suggested that homo sapiens don’t want to know the facts so much as they want to keep believing in their own preferred version of the truth. The second suggested that when we hang out with those who believe the same things we do, we become even more dug in and around a more extreme version of our preferred version of the truth.

Me, I like almost everything about the web-based system for finding and spreading information, but not everything. The flaws described in the oversimplification above are rooted in human nature, not in computer chips. But to the degree that webification makes it easier for people to wire their computers to help them wire their brains so they can constantly reinforce what they already believe, it makes actual learning, civil disagreement and the search for common ground among those who don’t start out standing on the same ground all that much harder and less likely.

What think?

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Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/02/2009 - 09:07 am.

    Nothing makes us believe more than fear, the certainty of being threatened. When we feel like victims all our actions and beliefs are legitimized, however questionable they may be. Our opponents, or simply our neighbors, stop sharing common ground with us and become our enemies. We stop becoming aggressors and become defenders.

    The first step for believing passionately is fear. Fear of losing our identity, our life, our status, or our beliefs. Fear is the gunpowder and hatred is the fuse. Dogma the final ingredient, is only the match.

  2. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 11/02/2009 - 09:17 am.

    I think that gathering in tribes or clans for protection and mutual benefit is as old as humanity.

    I try to get my news from a variety of sources, and I try to read/watch/listen to some other viewpoints from time to time.

    The question is, how is MinnPost being pigeonholed by its readers? Is this a liberal media outlet? It probably is. Certainly a couple pieces of commentary from Michael Sonafield or Craig Westover don’t move the scale very far to the right.

    Still, if Minnpost readers want conservative commentary and opinion, we know were to find it. I know MinnPost has at least a few conservative readers, judging from the comments. Good for them for being open to reading a “liberal” media outlet!

    Perhaps their is hope for this great Republic yet..

  3. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/02/2009 - 09:19 am.

    I think you’re exactly right about the dangers of hiding in the choir. If you’re not reading half a dozen blogs or commentary from people who vote the other way then you’re cheating yourself. There really is so much out there that there is no good excuse to not find someone with whom you disagree but makes you think.

  4. Submitted by jeshua erickson on 11/02/2009 - 09:29 am.

    Great piece. I think people naturally want their own opinion to be same as the majority opinion of their peer group. It is so much easier to believe something if “everyone” believes it. If we’re the only ones with a particular perspective, we doubt ourselves.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/02/2009 - 09:34 am.

    From an Evolutionary Psychology perspective

    the consequences of acting as if events are causally related when they’re not
    is less than
    the risk of ignoring a possibly causal relationship.
    E.g., it’s better to act as if a noise is caused by a predator than to ignore it and get eaten.
    The cost of a false positive (unnecessary avoidance) is minimal.

    Therefore, we appear to have a propensity for attributing causation to any events which are contiguous, even if we have no evidence other than that contiguity.

    So, we are more likely to accept a simply explanation rather than to withhold judgment while we study the question.

    Of course other factors are involved (I wouldn’t have had a career as a psychology professor if life were that simple), but this basic accounts for a lot of apparent irrationality.
    And add in the fact that our behavior is determined more by our past experience than by the current situation (whose consequences we have not yet experienced), which is why we’re always ‘fighting the last war’.

  6. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 11/02/2009 - 09:46 am.


    This is a recurring theme in your writing. I can’t complain, since I have my own pet issues, too.

    My concern is that for all your talk of self-examination and how both left and right are guilty of it, I can’t help but think this is really directed at talk radio and/or Fox News.

    Are we all, in your view, _equally_ guilty of the static thingy or are some more guilty than others? Is it equally distributed among the ideological spectrum? Is it true of NPR listeners just as much as other parts of the radio dial?

    How about your former employer on Portland Avenue? Were they ever guilty of turning up the static on certain points of view? Did you guys ever “fail your…readers” as CNN’s Bernard Shaw once put it? What examples can you give?

    Oh, and while we’re at it, did you read the defendants’ briefs in the Flying Imam’s case, or just Judge Montgomery’s ruling?

  7. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/02/2009 - 09:57 am.

    Interesting, ubiquitously evident when one thinks about it, and with much broader implications.

    It has been known for thousands of years that for those of religious belief frequent association with those of like mind strengthens conviction and encourages desirable (to the group) behaviors. So churches try to increase involvement in various group activities to foster this thinking and commitment.

    Armies do it. Schools do it. And workplaces. And fraternal organizations. And groups soliciting funds. And even political organizations.

    Unfortunately, so do the radical imams. And the white supremicist “survivalist” groups. And gangs on the street.

    Probably this human tendency provides the roots for the saying “Birds of feather flock together” — for the support gained from associating with those of like mind.

    When it happens in a “good” setting, it would seem this tendency is not a flaw so much as an asset. So the thing is to encourage the “good” settings and discourage the “bad” settings.

    But…who determines what is a “good” setting? And how and why?

  8. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/02/2009 - 11:18 am.

    As Minnpost readers know, I find reading and responding to liberal propaganda quite invigorating. However when considering the view points of people I know to be confused and wrong most of the time, limits must be drawn.

    MinnPost tries to maintain a facade of credibility which forces a moderation of the inherently leftist tenor that makes consideration possible.

    Most of the astroturf sites in the Sorosphere, on the other hand, are so poorly written, or express opinions so infantile as to make them unfit for thoughtful response, however brief.

    When I listen to AM 950, watch MSNBC and read MinnPost, as I often do, I weigh the information and measure it’s accuracy.

    Most of the time I come away solidly convinced that the conclusions I’ve come to regarding the left to be sound and reasoned, however there have been occasions where I have gleaned information that directs valuable criticism towards the Republican party, or less often, towards leaders of the conservative movement.

    Those that eschew a look “over the fence” might benefit from an audit of their own viewpoints. In my opinion, if your beliefs cannot withstand scrutiny, they are not worth holding.

  9. Submitted by Barbara Miller on 11/02/2009 - 11:23 am.

    Dearest Peter.

    Your conclusion seems knee-jerky. My sense was that the Ink-stained Wretch was talking to all of us. All. Of. Us. And rightly so.

    The difficulty is, and always has been, ferreting out thoughtful commentary from both sides of the gaping political abyss.

    The radical right and the radical left are utterly useless re informing the debate. They serve only to ratchet up bile and venom.

    I prefer my bile and venom lukewarm. And so it is that I periodically (bwahahaha) read George Will and David Brooks, among other civilized right-siders with whom I generally (but not always) disagree.

    And sometimes, I find myself tilting my head, nodding and actually thinking about what’s being said. Imagine that.

  10. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 11/02/2009 - 11:29 am.

    As we are bewildered by a stream of more information than we can possibly take in, we rather obviously need filtering mechanisms. The most obvious for our species is to pay attention only to members of our tribe, as anthropology shows that this is one of the strongest forces throughout history.

    We can also filter out information based on what we want to believe. Our intuition, if not tuned to be open to new things, might tell us that some things either make sense to us off the bat, thus reinforcing what we already like, or excite us in a way that we would like to be excited. It’s not just politics that hits the filter of what we want to believe in the first place, it also includes media sensationalism such as the “Balloon Boy” stunt.

    There are many other examples, especially when you look at our economic situation and how willfully we ignore the rather obvious fact that a major restructuring has to precede any kind of recovery. We have become a delusional people because we have chosen to believe what already fits with ou view of the world, which is to say largely what we want to believe in the first place. The rest is noise we largely cannot process.

    What needs to be examined is what things we want to believe and why. Starting with tribal identities is useful, but it easily expands to other very gut level needs of our species.

    This is a topic I write about very often. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but I hope I can ask some good questions.

  11. Submitted by Grace McGarvie on 11/02/2009 - 11:41 am.

    It has been my experience that conservative acquaintances and friends are less likely to do further research on questionable stories then are liberals. I think this may be because many or most liberals I know are graduates of liberal arts colleges and have been taught how to research and do critical thinking. I am not saying that liberals do not get carried away with some story – confirmation bias (explained below) is applicable to all. I personally cultivate people of different opinions in an attempt to keep my brain sharp.

    From: Michael Shermer:
    Confirmation bias explains why so many rumors about candidates were eagerly embraced recently. On the left, commentators glommed onto false gossip about Sarah Palin’s ignorance (she doesn’t know that Africa is a continent) and bigotry (she tried to ban books from the public library) because liberals think that conservatives are dumb and dogmatic, and after eight years of George W. Bush’s malapropisms and Palin’s interview fumbles, such rumors merely confirmed what liberals already believed.

    On the right, conservatives were primed to process hearsay about Barack Obama being a Muslim or Arab as true, or that his tax plan — indistinguishable from that of most Democratic candidates in recent decades — confirmed that he’s a socialist, even while Republicans were nationalizing the financial industry and running up record debts.

    Research on confirmation bias has found that when subjects are presented with evidence that contradicts their deeply held beliefs, they dismiss it as invalid, while other subjects treat the same information as valuable when it confirms what they believe. In one study, for example, subjects were shown a video of a child taking a test. One group was told that the child was from a high socioeconomic class; the other group was told that the child was from a low socioeconomic class. The subjects were asked to evaluate the academic abilities of the child based on the results of the test. The child believed to be from the high socioeconomic group was rated as above grade level, but the child believed to be from the low socioeconomic group was rated as below grade level. Same data. Same kid. Different interpretations.

    The confirmation bias sways us all, especially when it reinforces our inner tribalism. Most of us will never join a cult, but all of us are subject to the pull of believing that the evidence supports our most cherished beliefs. Inside Jonestown, Jim Jones’ daily barrages confirmed to members that their cause was right and that ultimately death would bring about peace and justice.

    It is for this reason that we need to look for disconfirmatory evidence, to listen to the arguments of those with whom we disagree, to ask for constructive criticism of our beliefs, and to remember Oliver Cromwell’s words to the Church of Scotland in 1650: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

    From: Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, and the author of “Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time” (1997)


  12. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 11/02/2009 - 11:51 am.

    “If your beliefs cannot withstand scrutiny, they are not worth holding.”

    Well said, Tom.

  13. Submitted by Howard Miller on 11/02/2009 - 12:55 pm.

    Bless John Pratt and his article on strong inference. (Strong Inference, John R. Platt, Science, New Series, Vol. 146, No. 3642.Oct. 16, 1964, pp. 347-353.)

    He poses “the question” … the one that keeps the advocates, the believers in a point of view more honest:

    “But sir, what experiment could disprove
    your hypothesis”

    If there is no evidence, no experiment that could disprove to a believer that s/he had it right, we’re in the realm of faith, not reason and evidence.

    And it’s hard to govern with faith alone. I suspect more people should know of John Platt’s work, embrace his challenge to our thinking

  14. Submitted by Wendy Helgeson on 11/02/2009 - 01:59 pm.

    You are right – it is very troubling! Even on Facebook – an opportunity to reconnect with friends with different opinions, they can “unfriend you” if they don’t like your thoughts. I blogged about this recently on our site my post is at this link:

    I’m afraid we lack the ability to produce successful community solutions without more diverse opinions engaged in healthy civic conversation.

  15. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/02/2009 - 02:43 pm.

    The “either/or” thinking that worked in the past is no longer effective. The ability to think in terms of “both/and” will be valuable to discerning in the future what is occurring around us.

    “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in words that could not ring truer today “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

    Many of us fail the first part. We cannot hold two opposing ideas. This is an ability we will have to quickly acquire if we are to make sense of an increasingly complex and confusing world.

  16. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/02/2009 - 05:27 pm.

    The problem with this analysis is that what if the voices of “those who don’t agree” with me are crazy? Should we listen to Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh, the leaders of the Republican Party? Sometimes after you’ve listened to the “other” point of view enough times, and it never changes, what is the point of listening anymore, except to make yourself crazy too? This is the flaw in your argument, Eric.

  17. Submitted by Roxie Aho on 11/02/2009 - 08:31 pm.

    Does this article mean I can’t read Eric Black INK any more?

    I’m a libertarian. When I read David Brooks it helps me articulate my views. When I read Paul Krugman I learn something.

    If I had to make the choice I would read Krugman.

  18. Submitted by Joe Williams on 11/02/2009 - 10:58 pm.

    “if your beliefs cannot withstand scrutiny, they are not worth holding.”

    Beliefs are cognitive content. The above quote would be correct if our minds were perfectly rational and able to process information without bias. I would argue that any belief that DOES withstand scrutiny simply hasn’t been scrutinized wholly.

  19. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/03/2009 - 09:51 am.

    No doubt we seriously need to stop shouting at each other about what we believe and start talking to each other about what we know. However these studies may provide very limited insight however beyond documenting the obvious.

    There are a couple problems with this study, as there are with so many psych studies. For one thing it is always very difficult to separate out the effects of individual personality traits and intellect from environmental influence. Personality traits can drive environmental decisions to such an extent as to confound experimental observations. For instance, we know that Democrats tend to have certain personality traits, but we also know from studies on social affiliation that our personalities can govern our decisions regarding comfort levels and participation. Affiliation is self selecting; in other words are Democrats Democrats before becoming Democrats, or do they become Democrats after becoming Democrats?

    Most of what we know about human psychology indicates that people become Democrats because they are pre-disposed to be more comfortable in that environment, people seek out comfortable environments. An environment can reinforce certain attitudes and behaviors but we know that attempts to conform individuals to environments regardless of predisposition ultimately fail for the most part. For instance mind control milieu’s such as cults, military boot camps etc. rapidly loose their power once an individual escapes that environment. In other words, if you put a Democrat in a Republican boot camp, they may convert for a while, but if they get back into the real world they will usually relapse. This is where Mr. Black’s train of thought begins to derail.

    The question is what the studies Mr. Black sites really tell us. We have two studies, one that points out an inherent disposition to seek out information that confirms existing beliefs (confirmatory bias). And a second study documenting post social affiliation reinforcement of existing attitudes. In other words, Democrats tend to seek out information that confirms their Democratic ideas, and they tend to join Democratic social environments and people who reinforce those ideas, and having done so they become more like other Democrats.

    The prejudice study Mr. Black sites groups people into tolerant and intolerant groups and documents the trends of prejudice, the tolerant become more tolerant, the intolerant more intolerant. Here’s where Mr. Black gets confused. He assumes that the study documents social effect when in fact it may only be documenting self selection. Think about it this way, let’s say you have two people, one is a hard core Viking fan, the other completely apathetic regarding sports. Who’s most likely to a Vikings game, and would you expect the apathetic person to respond with the same enthusiasm as the fan? Of course the fan is more likely to go to a game, and they’re going to more enthusiastic once there. Black is suggesting that a fan will become less so if they spend more time talking to non fans, what do you think?

    The problem with the prejudice study is that there were only two self selected groups. There should have a been control subjects, a small cohort of individuals should have been randomly assigned to either group. In other words, you take some tolerants and put them int he intolerant group and vice-versa. You can then measure to what extent the social environment mitigates attitudes. Mr. Black’s conclusion is that if tolarants talked to intolerants they would become more intolerant, this study doesn’t document that. The idea that we can modify our attitudes by simply talking to a more diverse group of people is simply not supported by available data on attitudes and bias.

    The reason such social remedies fail is because our attitudes are predisposed, we bring them to the group, they are not created by the group.

    The problem we have isn’t that we’re not taking to enough people with different perspectives, in fact that can be an outright waste of time. It’s not about being “open” minded, it’s about being “well” minded. Do you really want to be open to the idea that the earth is flat? That the sun revolves around the earth? The moon is made of cheese?

    I’m sorry but I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve discovered that talking to and arguing with right wingers is waste of my time. They are impervious to facts, and simply escalate their hysteria whenever their confronted by contradictory evidence. Do you really want to spend three hours a day or whatever listening to Rush Limbaugh? Do you really think that will “open” your mind, and make you more tolerant? For the record my experience with Marxists is the same, it’s not about diversity, the problem is ideological extremism. It’s not about insufficiently open minds, it about poorly developed intellects. It’s not about being willing to listen to anyone, it’s about being able to figure out who knows what their talking about.

  20. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/04/2009 - 07:01 am.

    A few days ago I posted a comment on this board questioning Eric Black’s premise on listening to opposing views. I basically said that after you listen to Republican views for a few years it is all the same – cut taxes, government can do no right, etc – it becomes literally insane to listen to them, because it basically makes you stupider, plus, they are saying nothing new so it is a waste of time.

    For some reason that comment was censored. Today Thomas Frank makes that same point in the Wall Street Journal, that bastion of liberalism.

    No one, me in particular, is arguing that opposing points of views shouldn’t be heard; the difference is that I argue they shouldn’t be paid attention to JUST BECAUSE THEY EXIST. Heeding the advice of crazy people is literally crazy. Glen Beck gets a big audience. Does that mean we should treat him seriously? Do you, Eric? Am I walling myself off because I don’t listen to Beck?

  21. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/04/2009 - 10:34 am.

    There’s “listening” to others and then there’s “listening” to others.

    Depends on the meaning of listening.

    If it means hearing the words, filtering them through our own preconceptions, and then marshalling arguments for or against depending on our previous position (as I have found young college students like to do for the pleasure of the argument), then little is to be gained.

    But if listening means sincerely hearing the words with the intent of understanding the speaker’s point of view, without reference to our own preconceived ideas, then the door of mutual understanding opens all sorts of avenues for mutual accommodation.

    From the latter meaning come sayings such as “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes,” and “Politics is the art of reasoning minds locked in debate.”

    Talking AT each other is easy. Real listening is hard to do, as most husbands and wives can attest. It can’t be taught in a class.

    It becomes almost impossible when the atmosphere is clouded by fear or deep self interest.

    Some say it can only come from the security about oneself that comes from age — the basis for minimum ages for the House, the Senate, and the Presidency.

    Some say it comes from having “an open mind” — by which a certain agnostic bent of intellect is meant. But some of the best listeners have been persons quite fixed in their own convictions.

    And some say it has its roots in mutual respect each for the other as persons, something proceeding from deep convictions about the worth of each human being.

    I find that the best tool for “listening” in the good sense is to say to myself silently “Now put down your weapons, and learn what makes this person tick.”

    And when I am tempted to interrupt him/her, I know that I have not succeeded. If accusations come to mind, I know I have not succeeded. And if “another one of those people” comes to mind, I know I have already failed the attempt.

    It takes practice, but what one can learn can sometimes be eye-opening. One cannot meaningfully disagree with another person before first learning what s/he is thinking and why.

  22. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/04/2009 - 11:03 am.

    “because it basically makes you stupider..” (sic)

  23. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/04/2009 - 12:57 pm.

    Who is “more stupid” ??

    Stupider IS a word.

  24. Submitted by Eric Black on 11/05/2009 - 01:06 am.

    Thanks to all for an excellent thread.
    To Rob Levine, no, you don’t have to listen to Glenn Beck.
    My idea is to struggle against the assumption that a dolt or clown like Beck speaks for all Republicans or all conservatives, so therefore I don’t have to listen to any of them.
    My idea is to cultivate smart, honest conservatives who will help me put my assumptions to a real test. John Iacono had some fine words in this very thread about what it takes to really listen and look for common ground.
    I also commend the admirably brief comment #3 above, by Peder DeFor, about how he does it.
    Best to all,

  25. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/05/2009 - 08:43 am.

    Eric – appreciate your chiming in – I wish more posters would do that. I’m curious: Who should decide who are the “clowns”? And just who are the smart and honest conservatives? Can you name a few? If you study the history of the conservative movement from the 1970s on you begin to realize that they are specialists in bait-and-switch arguments, almost every one of which has led to disasters. Republicans hate government from an ideological perspective, not a policy perspective.

  26. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/05/2009 - 09:55 am.


    “That is just the sort of thing that those who like that sort of thing would like.”
    –Abe Lincoln

  27. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/06/2009 - 10:15 am.

    Mr. Black

    //My idea is to cultivate smart, honest conservatives who will help me put my assumptions to a real test.

    Soooo are you trying to listen to conservatives or create conservatives who will listen to you? And how does that fit in with the whole talking to people who don’t agree with us thing?

    I’m just yanking yer chain. I’m just not sure these studies you point to actually give us anything to go on. Frankly, if 22-23 years or older and you need a psychologist to warn you about the dangers of having a narrow perspective it probably doesn’t matter who you’re talking to.

  28. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/09/2009 - 07:11 am.

    Here’s the real problem with your argument, Eric, as put by Paul Krugman this morning:

    “Real power in the [Republican] party rests, instead, with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin (who at this point is more a media figure than a conventional politician). Because these people aren’t interested in actually governing, they feed the base’s frenzy instead of trying to curb or channel it. So all the old restraints are gone.”

    Just right – they are not actually interested in good government – they HATE government, so no surprise when they get power all they do is destroy things. Are these the people we should be “listening” to?

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