Friday, December 14, 2007

The Polarization of Extremes

Professor Cass Sunstein. University of Chicago, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, elaborates on a phenomenon I have often observed, the tendency of people of like mind to strengthen common ideas and minimize their differences, resulting in polarization. He doesn't use the word cocooning specifically, but in the Internet it is a well-known part of life.

After describing an experiment a couple of years ago demonstrating the phenomenon using a pre-selected group, he raises an important question: Why do enclaves, on the Internet and elsewhere, produce political polarization?

Three possibilities are proposed.

The first explanation emphasizes the role of information. [Information=evidence, so when people who are already in basic agreement exchange information, common bonds become stronger.]

The second explanation, involving social comparison, begins with the reasonable suggestion that people want to be perceived favorably by other group members. [Simply stated, peer pressure is at work.]

The final explanation is the most subtle, and probably the most important...The starting point here is that on many issues, most of us are really not sure what we think. Our lack of certainty inclines us toward the middle....Enclave extremism is particularly likely to occur on the Internet because people can so easily find niches of like-minded types — and discover that their own tentative view is shared by others.

This final point, that extremism derives from a lack of certainty, is important. We are taught to go forward with every mission with a positive attitude, certain that our cause is correct and doubts are our worst enemy.

We don't have to look far during this period leading up to an election to discover how unacceptable it is for anyone to have a changed mind. One of the most potent weapons in the arsenal of any candidate is a handful of soundbites showing how an opponent "flip-flops." We forget how we shift gears ourselves depending on whether we are at work, at play, at home, in church or visiting a respectable but elderly family member who "wouldn't understand." We have dozens of levels of candor depending on where we are talking.

When I do it, it's not uncertainty, of course, but diplomacy. It's uncertainty, if not downright mendacity, only when you do it.

I have learned to have great respect for anyone who has the grace to admit to a changed mind. Especially when the change of mind comes round to my way of thinking.

H/T Arts and Letters Daily

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