Why friends are always right – no matter their views

21st March, 2024

My colleague John Burn-Murdoch recently presented striking evidence of a new trend: young men and young women are becoming politically segregated. Young men now sit substantially to the right of young women on the political spectrum. This is an international phenomenon and it’s new.

Should we be surprised? Society seems to be polarising along every possible axis and on every conceivable issue. Consider the apparently simple question of how the US economy is faring. The answer is simple: it depends whether the sitting president is on your team or not. Little else matters. From the public’s perspective anyway.

According to Gallup, Democrats are 57 percentage points more likely than Republicans to say that the economy is improving. Wind back four years, to early 2020 when Donald Trump rather than Joe Biden was president, and you find a very similar gap: 54 percentage points. Back then, naturally, it was the Republicans who believed the economy was improving.

To pick another issue, should there be a memorial for those killed by the Covid-19 pandemic? The death toll in the US alone is more than a million people. That seems like it might be worth some sort of public monument, but what should it say and how? The podcast 99% Invisible recently followed the efforts of bereaved families to galvanise support for something more than a national memory of “the time that we all couldn’t find fucking yeast”. But even a memorial is controversial. One Republican politician told the podcast he’d support a memorial that apologised for the Covid vaccine.

It is tempting to blame the politicians for all this polarisation. Yet if successful politicians are more inflammatory than they used to be, more keen to make enemies than friends, that is probably a response to something else. But what?

Consider a few thought-provoking findings from social science. Nearly twenty years ago three academics, Cass Sunstein, Reid Hastie and David Schkade, assembled focus groups from left-leaning Boulder, Colorado, and separately from conservative Colorado Springs. Participants were privately asked their views on politically heated topics, then put into groups with others from their town and asked to discuss the issues together.

We might hope that this process would lead people to question their certainties, making them more humble and perhaps pulling them towards the political centre. The opposite was true. Individuals from Boulder moved further to the left after discussing the matter with fellow Boulderites. They also became more similar, converging on a leftwing view. Finally, they became more confident that they were correct.

The mirror image applied to the participants from Colorado Springs. After discussion with others from their town they moved further to the right and became more certain of themselves. The two groups, not so different at the start, moved far apart as a result of exposure to other people with similar views. This process is known as “group polarisation”.

Another study examined student friendships. The researchers, Angela Bahns, Kate Pickett and Christian Crandall, compared the behaviour of students at small campuses, with about 500 students each, to the friendship structure at the University of Kansas, which has the student population in the tens of thousands. The researchers sought out pairs of people who were chatting in the student union or cafeteria and gathered a host of telling details: students’ age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, how much they drank, smoked or exercised and their attitudes to a variety of social and political questions. They were also asked about their friendships.

In principle, the University of Kansas offered a far greater diversity of views and lifestyles, with 25,000 possible friends to choose from. But in practice, students on the smaller campuses had more diverse friendship groups. The reason? On a large campus, students could find their social and ideological soulmates. On small campuses, they had less choice and so had to make friendships work even when they bridged social or ideological gaps.

Taken together, these studies suggest an unnervingly plausible two-part engine of polarisation: first, given the choice, we seek out other people like us. Then, being surrounded by people like us makes us more extreme in our views and more confident that those views are correct.

Our current information ecosystem offers us more choice than ever. Alongside social media we can pick and choose from websites, podcasts and YouTube channels to reflect any interest, geography and ideology. And how do we use that choice? Generally, by seeking out people who share our views, broadcasters who seem to “get” us and, often, by avoiding news altogether.

I am wary of blaming social media for all our ills. It can be a great source of support and information, particularly for people in an unusual situation: anything from having a disability to a minority sexual orientation to a niche hobby. There is a real benefit to being able to reach out and find like-minded people.

Yet we must acknowledge the risk that we are self-selecting into echo chambers. Social media algorithms may be giving us a push, recommending content to us that drives “engagement”, the most surprising, outrageous and often toxic material. But we shouldn’t blame algorithms steering us away from serious and thoughtful exposure to different points of view. We are quite capable of choosing that for ourselves.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 23 February 2024.

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