February 03, 2006

The Idiot Principle

A recent experiment on group decisionmaking in Colorado suggests that deliberation with like-minded peers makes you more extreme:

Before deliberation, the median view, among Boulder groups, was not always so far apart from the median view among Colorado City groups. After deliberation, the division increased significantly.

Why aren't people drawn towards the median when they deliberate? Shouldn't deliberation make people moderate their views?

Apparently, the answer is "no." In deliberation, it seems, extreme viewpoints win. Assuming that enlightenment is somewhere in the middle, talking with our peers makes us dumber.

The Colorado experiment divided people into like-minded groups. Maybe the problem is in deliberating with people who are "just like us." But how do we know when our group has a bias? A left-leaning person can point to a conservative person and say "you are nuts!" But can we detect the biases in people who are just like ourselves?

Maybe the lesson is this, and it is counterintiutive: if you don't talk with people who disagree with you, you are better off not talking with anybody at all. Or, in other words:

The only way to get smarter is to talk with idiots.

Next time you read a book (or a blog entry) you enjoy, think about whether you are polarizing yourself. You probably are.

Each year for the past several years, orgnet's Valdis Krebs has assembled a stunning "customers who bought this book also bought" graph of Amazon data that shows a frightening polarization in the world of readers. It is a map of the current state dysfunction in U.S. politics.

I have a feeling that the "idiot principle" applies outside of politics as well...

More about group decisionmaking from the University of Chicago, here.

Posted by David at February 3, 2006 06:45 AM

Great observation Dave.

Unfortunately this research shows the reasons why living in Seattle will make you liberal, and living in Colorado Springs will make you conservative. Extremism and the resulting biases are environmental.

I was thinking about this in the context of the hullabaloo (is that a word?) over intelligent design and evolution. By going to court to effectively silence the ID crowds, the evolution creating their own legally enforced “deliberation with like-minded peers.” It occurred to me earlier that the way to silence or to counter a false science is not to censor one side, but rather exposure of both sides to what can be known. We didn’t get past “the earth is flat,” “tomatoes are poison,” and “waltzing causes plague” by silencing people and calling them names, but rather by opening up society to more information.

But having the information available is not all it takes. Much like the book buying illustration shows, there is also research to show that the explosion of information sources deepens the divide as well. People who are leaning in one direction or the other gravitate toward information sources that reinforce their views, and shun those that counter their view.

I second Dave’s conclusion. Find idiots, and talk to them! You will make the world a better place.

Posted by: Roger at February 3, 2006 11:57 AM

"Assuming that enlightenment is somewhere in the middle"

That's an awfully big assumption

Posted by: Bob at February 7, 2006 11:00 AM

Sure, but as I sit here watching the Muslim community whip themselves into a frenzy on Arabic-only message boards, and the European press congratulating for seeing the "caricatures proved right" in Danish-only editorials... as embassies burn down and people continue to get shot every day over these cartoons, I have to say:

It seems obvious that enlightenment is rarely found at the extremes.

Posted by: David at February 8, 2006 08:28 AM
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