More On Amplification

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OPEN UNIVERSITY SEPTEMBER 6, 2006

More On Amplification

by Cass Sunstein
As several commentators have suggested, we can't have much
of a handle on ideological amplification without knowing
what produces it. And as Steven Pinker has said, ideological
amplification is just a special case of the broader
phenomenon of group polarization.

Here's why ideological amplification occurs. (I draw on
decades of work in social science.) First, a group that is
inclined in a particular direction will naturally come up
with many arguments favoring its antecedent inclination.
Arguments the other way will be fewer and weaker. So: If a
group thinks that Pres. Bush is bad, it will hear lots of
arguments about why he's bad, and few about about he isn't
so bad. The same is true for critics of affirmative action,
those concerned about abandoned hazardous waste sites, and
many others.

Second, people tend to go to the middle if they're not
confident, and people get more extreme as their confidence
increases. Corroboration by others increases confidence. So
if people confirm your belief that Barack Obama should be
president one day (and incidentally, he should!), you'll end
up being firmer in your belief.

Third, people care about their reputations and their self-
conception. Suppose that you think of yourself as a moderate
conservative. If you find yourself in a very conservative
group, your usual views might make you seem pretty liberal,
in that group. So: You might well shift in the conservative
direction. Maybe you doubt that about yourself. But many
people do shift in this way.

These three mechanisms help explain why like-minded groups
go to extremes. They also give us some clues to radicalism
of various kinds--and also to the intelligence failures
with respect to Iraq, the Enron fiasco, student left-wingism
in the 1960s, stupid wars, appeasement, and real problems in
the blogosphere.

There are many possible solutions. A good start is a broader
understanding of the phenomenon. If like-minded judges find
themselves going to extremes, they might have some
inoculation from an understanding of how and why ideological
amplification occurs. Those in the legislative and executive
branches, and ordinary citizens, could benefit from that
understanding as well.

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