“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.