Surprising Validators

Excerpts from 'Breaking Up the Echo', an insightful article by Cass R. Sunstein on the psychology of changing minds:

"It is well known that when like-minded people get together, they tend to end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk. The same kind of echo-chamber effect can happen as people get news from various media.... The remedy for easing such polarization, here and abroad, may seem straightforward: provide balanced information to people of all sides.... Unfortunately, evidence suggests that balanced presentations — in which competing arguments or positions are laid out side by side — may not help. At least when people begin with firmly held convictions, such an approach is likely to increase polarization rather than reduce it.

Can anything be done? There is no simple term for the answer, so let’s make one up: surprising validators.

People tend to dismiss information that would falsify their convictions. But they may reconsider if the information comes from a source they cannot dismiss. People are most likely to find a source credible if they closely identify with it or begin in essential agreement with it. In such cases, their reaction is not, “how predictable and uninformative that someone like that would think something so evil and foolish,” but instead, “if someone like that disagrees with me, maybe I had better rethink.”

Our initial convictions are more apt to be shaken if it’s not easy to dismiss the source as biased, confused, self-interested or simply mistaken."

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