Ideological amplification

Cass Sunstein pumps out an amazing amout of stuff and yesterday I came across this brief blog post. The idea of ideological amplification rings true – though it needn’t be ideological.   Language itself and all use of it is an inherently co-operative exercise.   Individuals use common property (public goods no less!) – language, ideological and other ‘framing’ ideas – to express themselves and rely on the common property to link ideas in their own mind with those of others.
So it’s not surprising that there is an inherent tribalism in it all, ideological or otherwise. Orwell made it – or its worst excesses – known to us as ‘groupthink’.   Here’s Sunstein

A few years ago, I was involved in some studies that uncovered a funny fact: When Republican-appointed judges sit on three-judge panels with other Republican appointees, they show unusually conservative voting patterns. So too, Democratic-appointed judges on three-judge panels show especially liberal voting patterns when sitting with fellow Democratic appointees. In short, like-minded judges show a pattern if “ideological amplification.”

The presence of even one Republican appointee often makes Democratic appointees much more moderate. Republican appointees often become much more moderate when even a single Democratic appointee is there.

We now know that ideological amplification is pervasive on federal courts–that it can be found in numerous areas, including sex discrimination, affirmative action, campaign finance law, disability discrimination, environmental law, labor law, and voting rights.

It turns out that ideological amplification occurs in many domains. It helps to explain “political correctness” on college campuses–and within the Bush administration. In a recent study, we find that liberals in Colorado, after talking to one another, move significantly to the left on affirmative action, global warming, and civil unions for same-sex couples. On those same three issues, conservatives, after talking to each other, move significantly to the right.

It’s unclear whether anything can be done about ideological amplification. But it’s entirely clear that when private organizations and governments blunder, ideological amplification is often the culprit.

Personally I plead guilty to ideological amplification. That is, though at times I try to anchor my discourse on basic values, at other times, I’m swayed by what is regarded as ‘commonsense’ within a group.   At least in the context of realising the extreme intellectual punyness of all us mere mortals, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.   We are always trading the values of thinking from absolute or very strong foundational premises and ‘standing on the shoulders’ of others.   Of course it helps if they are giants, but you can often see further even if you stand on the shoulders of pigmies or groups of them!

To try to make that point more clearly, I’m not a ‘foundationalist’. I don’t think you get to knowledge by working from first principles.   I think you get there by talking and thinking about whatever you want and trying to keep your wits and your critical faculties about you for clues as to what makes sense and what doesn’t about what you and what others are saying.

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8 Responses to Ideological amplification

  1. Ken Parish says:

    You would hope that the genuinely commonsensical nature of any such group consensus would be enhanced by a degree of diversity of opinion/orientation within the group, and that appears to be what Sunstein is arguing. The trouble is that this dampening of ideological amplification can only occur when the group discourse remains vaguely civil but still robust, which brings me back to topics aboyut blog discourse probably best not revisited. Unless there’s some institutional reasons for people of diverse viewpoints to continue associating with each other (as in the judicial bench examples Sunstein cites), most people tend to retreat into comfortable bunkers with ideological allies, where amplification occurs unimpeded by any real consciousness that it is even possible to hold other views perfectly rationally and in complete good faith. Sadly, I suspect that Sunstein’s phenomenon of moderation of ideological amplification is not likely to occur outside of such highly structured interpersonal environments, especially not in the blogosphere.

  2. Chris Lloyd says:

    As a complete aside, the “standing on the shoulders of giants” quote is part of an open letter that Isaac Newton wrote (at the insistence of the Royal Society) to end the feud he had with Robert Hooke over priority in their research on refraction. In apparent conciliation, Newton stated that he had only achieved so much by standing on the shoulder of giants. Seems generous, unless one knows that Robert Hooke was physically deformed and of incredibly small stature.

    Very nasty peice of work was Isaac. He also had the last laugh as he outlived Hooke and the refraction patterns known as Hooke’s rings were renamed Newton’s Rings.

  3. Geoff R says:

    This is illustrated by the patterns of political book-purchasing, although there are signs of a economic focused group distinct from the liberal and conservative clusters

  4. Thx Chris,

    I didn’t know that.

    More generally on the theme of the thread, I should also have mentioned in my original post that the treatment of the very issue of what might be called ‘amplification’ more generally – ideological, perceptual, personal, ethnic – in The Wisdom of Crowds was one of several things that led me to argue here that it’s a thoroughly teriffic book and as major a contribution to our wellbeing as any book I can think of in economics – all in a popular, readable little tome. !

  5. This strikes me as a case of “social proof” and the general human urge to conformism.

    Oh, and I am absolutely guilt of it – my rants and raves over the years have converted most of my friends to liberalism and/or libertarianism. Quite scary when you hear your old rants being quoted back at you later on …

  6. Jaques – that makes you a leader not a follower. They’re the groupthinkers, not you. (Unless you agree with them as they parrot your views. If you are a real guru you’ll change tack at that point. If you meet the Buddha on the road – kill him – that kind of thing. A very cool thing to do).

  7. meika says:

    of course some holders of some ideologies are adverse at times, if not down right hostile to (not just differing biases) but the idea of ideological dampening through a “degree of diversity of opinion/orientation within the group, and that appears to be what Sunstein is arguing” as Ken puts it.

    As indeed i also tried to indicate this in my original dolebludger article at opinion online Policy, personal choice and polemics: why I am a dole bludger though the title should read ‘was a dolebludger’. It got subbied.

    To suggest ‘dampening’ even, one will be howled down, and sledged on one’s perceived ideology (even if now disavowed) or position/bias /history/appearance /mistakes, anything but the ball.

    Of course the sledging does have a function, it’s to push you out of the arena and make it less diverse. It is an unconscious alpha male style territorial “go away!” because I smell real bad. And anyway I deserve to get all the resources because you’re weak and did not fight etc etc etc. Its about not co-operating, its about theft, and it is below consciousness.

    Though this itself is not ideological in nature, it is a pattern of personal and peer behaviour which some institutions (and some politicians exploit) actively encourage (those based on racism or other group identifications) regardless of their ideology.

    Mary Douglas calls this dampening process ‘appreciation’ which is actually a better and more positve way to say it, and one up on ‘toleration’.

    see also (on an anthropological research programme)

    “Appreciation” would appear to take some personal reflection and introspection which ideologues are emotionally incapable of doing (even after Mazslo’s hierarchy of needs are met). Maybe all that pop psychology out there will have an appreciation bonus one day. Maybe I’ll write that book, sure seems to be a bit of money in that.

  8. Ken Parish says:

    This is just a comment to get this post to the top of the “recently commented” list so people can read Meika’s comment, which I really liked and think is worth people reading, but which remained in moderation for some reason (probably the more than 2 hyperlinks phenomenon).

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