Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Damaging deliberations

Ideas from a meeting on Complex Networks, 2-6 July, Sardinia, Italy

In one of my recent New York Times columns, I explored the worrying polarization evident between the conservative and liberal bloggers in the US. I argued that it might well be the almost mechanical outcome of an amplifying feedback driven by simple psychological factors that influence how people form opinions and attitudes. First, the psychological phenomenon of “cognitive dissonance” tends to make us more comfortable with view that confirm rather than contradict our own. Second, people also have a strong tendency to adopt, even unconsciously, the attitudes of those with whom they interact. So the more conservative or liberal bloggers read the views in their own sphere, the more they're drawn into that sphere, express similar views, and end of living in an intellectual world of views that merely confirm their own.

That was speculation. But there's some exciting recent work that I think supports it -- some from network theorists here in Sardinia who are looking, rather abstractly, at the mathematics of opinion change within groups, and some from lawyers trying to address, in practical terms, how we might heal our polarization with greater deliberation. The lesson, I think, is that we had better be quite careful in what we do, or we could make the matter even worse.

Yesterday, physicist Renaud Lambiotte of the University of Liege in Belgium talked about his recent work (with physicists Marcel Ausloos and Janus Hoylst) in modeling the evolution of opinions. Their modeling suggests that two groups holding opposing views may quickly become reconciled, or remain at odds, and that what happens --and this is the important point -- can be very strongly influenced by the presence or absence of only a few social links between the groups. Here's the basic idea.

They supposed that individuals hold one of two opinions (it's not hard to think of some relevant issue), assigned randomly at the start. People in the model would then change their views, step by step, by a “majority rule” – each person would adopt (in the next time step) the opinion held by a majority of those with whom they were linked in the social network. The interesting thing to explore is how the structure of the network influences what ultimately happens.

Lambiotte and colleagues started by imagining two groups that were isolated from one another, or nearly isolated. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they found that people within each group quickly came to share one opinion. The groups came to a consensus, although the two groups were as likely to agree as disagree with each other. But the researchers then began adding social links between the groups, to see how this might change the outcome.

They found no change, at first, as the two groups continued to form opinions independently. But rather than a gradual increase in the way opinions “leak” from one group to the other as more connections are added, the researchers found a surprise when the number of links between the groups reached a precise threshold. Abruptly, the final opinions of the two groups were now always identical. Even a few extra links between groups were enough to “tip” their final opinions from a state of full polarization to full agreement.

This finding represents the social equivalent (in this simple model) of what physicists call a "phase transition", closely akin to the abrupt transformation of liquid water to ice. The interesting thing is that the change from one outcome to the other isn't gradual, but very rapid, and happens at some critical threshold of links between the groups. Near this boundary, a tiny alteration of the network structure can lead to drastic consequences.

Now this is quite abstract, but it may still be highly relevant to the real world. A number of studies have noted increasing polarization in recent years, not only in the web, but in geographical zones as well, with some parts of the US, for example, becoming more homogeneously conservative or liberal. Legal academics have been concerned with the consequences of this trend for our democratic discourse, and ability to come to collective decisions. What can we do?

Some legal theorists have suggested that one way to counter this trend would be to have special "deliberation days", during which people would come together in "town hall" meetings to discuss key issues. But some experiments carried out by Cass Sunstein and colleagues at the University of Chicago suggest that he outcome of such meetings can be counterproductive.

They had both liberals and conservatives from different cities in Colorado come together to discuss contemporary issues (gay marriage, the Iraq war, and so on) for a day, using surveys to gauge their views both before and after the deliberations. The liberals discussed issues among themselves, in one group, as did the conservatives, in another. What they found is that both groups became more extreme in their views during the discussions, and that the distance between the two groups became larger as a result. The conservatives became more conservative, and the liberals more liberal.

The lesson of these experiments is that those intermediary links between groups are absolutely essential to building overall consensus, and that, in their absence, we should expect an evolution toward greater extremism. But the more encouraging lesson from the network theory of Labiotte and colleagues is that only a few links between such groups can be remarkably successful in breaking down such polarization. Even if the situation seems bleak, and unchangeable, it may take only a few more contacts to seed a tremendous change.


John Savage said...

This is very interesting research, Mark. Just a couple of things:

I’m unsure why you cite the Sunstein study as a test of the hypothesis that “deliberation days” would help to break down differences, when the experiment actually involved intentionally segregating liberals and conservatives, with the unremarkable result that both groups became more extreme.

At the end, you come to an optimistic conclusion from a centrist point of view: that somehow bringing liberals and conservatives together in a common forum would quickly break down their differences. As a political blogger, I just find this intuitively wrong. For example, I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few months over at the blog Crunchy Con, where conservative columnist Rod Dreher has a large number of vocal, liberal readers. At least on certain threads, liberal commenters make me (a strong conservative) feel very defensive and often make me walk away convinced that there’s no possibility to bridge the gap. I can’t imagine how forcing me to talk with these people in some kind of forum would bring out a consensus. How does the theory explain such a result? On the other hand, when I’m on sites with a more homogeneous readership, I’m often willing to disagree rather strongly with the position of an author because I know that we share some kind of common ground, and that author has a stake in being able to answer honest objections to the argument.

I’m also wondering how you reconcile this research with the mishmash of policies pursued by totalitarian states. It would also seem that the conclusion of Labiotte et al. would suggest that a totalitarian state should be able to unite people by forcing them to “link” whether they liked it or not. For example, as I understand it, Communist China has pursued a strong assimilationist policy, trying to mute ethnic differences and make everyone simply Chinese. Your theory would obviously say this was a smart policy, and I doubt I’d disagree. On the other hand, the early Soviet Union didn’t take the approach of forcing together Russians and non-Russians; instead it sought to minimize ethnically-based opposition to the regime with an official policy of multiculturalism. For example, prior to World War II the Soviets persecuted Islam much less than Christianity. From the perspective of a Soviet leader, this seems like it was a pretty smart policy as far as minimizing ethnically-based opposition to the regime. Would you agree, and if so, how would you explain that? Wouldn’t the theory dictate trying to assimilate those minorities?

Keep up the good work, Mark. You’re becoming one of my favorite science writers.

John Savage said...

Mark, just to add: I noticed your older post here, from January 14. You wrote, “The key idea is that extremists tend to be very certain of their own views, whereas moderates tend to be more open-minded and willing to question their own views. It is not unreasonable to suppose, then, that when moderate and extremist people interact, it is the moderates who are more likely to shift their opinions, not the extremists. Over time, given the right conditions, you get more extremists, and researchers have shown … that even a small contingent of extremists can infect an entire group.” I think this is the relevant research in this case, but it conflicts with the research you cited in this week’s post.

I suppose I’m one of the “extremists” you’re talking about. And it seems that two groups of “extremists” on opposite sides would probably not moderate each other’s views by talking to each other, no matter how many “links” you tried to provide between them. In fact, they might make each other even more extreme.

I was trying to find an example I could show you, of what I think is a typical discussion between two polarized points of view, but in fact the blogger erased the discussion I had in mind. Here’s the post that started it:

The liberals thought this was a cheap shot at homosexuals, and reacted with rage. I remember some of them saying things like, “So after all the rapes committed by heterosexual men throughout history, you single out this incident in order to denigrate gay men.” There was at least a hint that all conservatives were Nazi-like people who endorsed violence against homosexuals. Naturally the conservatives defended their honor and suggested that the record of heterosexual men had been distorted by revisionist historians, while the behavior mentioned in the post was no surprise in a culture that had carelessly abandoned its traditional moral standards. I for one might at first have been willing to admit that this post was a cheap shot, but my natural reaction was to rally to the conservative side, seeing that liberals were making personal attacks on people I agreed with. (Most of the moderates probably sat on the sidelines.) Could you, in all honesty, predict that a discussion like this would tend to produce moderation of anyone’s views? How could you get consensus out of this?

Thanks for your attention and enjoy the rest of the conference.

Partha said...

Mark, as always I found your post engrossing (especially in the abstract). If I try to apply its findings to myself or to individuals I know, however, I run into difficulties. The views I hold on substantive issues are the result of a great deal of reading, reflection and discussion with people whose opinion I value. It is unlikely that my view would change if I'm exposed to social interactions with people holding the opposite view. Is there a statistical dimension here that I'm missing? Or, are the findings applicable only to questions about which the participants haven't yet made up their minds? If it is the latter, how do you address the problem of "pluralistic ignorance" that the other commenter of this post has also raised?

Who am I? said...

Hi John, Partha,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I'm at the conference and can't say too much now, but I'll try to say something more thoughtful later...i think maybe another post on this would be in order, perhaps after the conference.

One thing: I didn't mean to imply that the Sunstein study supports the idea that deliberation days would break down differences. What it offers is more of a cautionary lesson -- that if you're going to have deliberation days, you'd better try to get lots of diversity in your groups, because if you don't, you may well make the polarization even bigger. Logically speaking, the study doesn't say *anything* about what you're likely to see in groups where you *do* have lots of diversity and polarization. It just doesn't address that situation at all.

So in simplest terms, I guess, the idea is that bringing different people together may or may not help, but that having deliberation with groups that are already fairly homogeneous is most likely a recipe for more trouble. This is a weak point, perhaps, but worthwhile to keep in mind as (and this is an important point that Sunstein and colleagues emphasize) a number of studies (which they cite) show that regions of the US have become more homogeneous in political makeup. So if you had something like local town hall style meetings, you're increasingly likely to get homogeneous groups.

I haven't seen any studies on what happens if you bring strongly polarized people together. I'd like to know if there's any convincing research on this. It certainly seems to me, as your experiences confirm too, that strongly opinionated people tend to talk past one another, use the same words (but mean different things by them), or somehow see the world so differently that there is no means for communication. (Again, the Sunstein work just doesn't touch on this situation at all.)

Having said this, I just thought of something I should mention in a future post -- some work by some Belgian scientists who have developed a framework for bringing together highly polarized parties to help them reach some consensus. Say you have some developers who want to flatten a forest to build houses, and some locals who want to preserve the environment. They hate and distrust each other. I can't recall the details, but the idea is to bring them together and, first, to have them talk *not* about the issues on which they disagree, but on others on which they do agree, to establush common ground. We obviously all love our children, want communities without crime, good roads, and you could list a hundred thousand other things. I think the research in question doesn't go to things that basic, but looks at aspects of the situation -- say, land use -- on which the parties would also agree. And then they try to move from that platform of agreement toward a fully discussion. It's easier to talk constructively with people once you see they're not raving lunatics, but ordinary people like yourself. From what I've heard, they've had great success -- at the very least, the parties come to see one another as respectable people with different opinions. Anyway, I'll look into this -- I've wanted to for some time -- and try to post something fairly soon.


John Savage said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Mark. I look forward to hearing more.

Valdis said...

Savage wrote...

"On the other hand, the early Soviet Union didn’t take the approach of forcing together Russians and non-Russians; ..."


They did much of that "ethinic-mixing", but fortunately not enough to dilute the local population completely. A typical pattern in the Baltics:
1) Arrest or kill the most infuential folks/leaders.
2) Ship out the next group of influentials -- usually to Siberia or other places where they would be an obvious minority.
3) Build new factories and ship in other nationalities to work in them, thus diluting the local ethnic majority.

This process was often called "russification" and it was done so that there would never be a core group, or enough followers, to lead an uprising.