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Thursday, October 2, 2008

confirmation bias

Steve emailed me about this "Talk of the Nation" show on confirmation bias-- how we believe our side by default, even when they're saying false things.

About four minutes from the end of the interview, the person he's interviewing sites a study by Diana Mutz. Steve was especially surprised that people with degrees were the least likely to engage with people who disagreed with them. I dug up what I could find on it from the internets. It turns out that stat is related to the ability of people with degrees to move more easily to a more like minded environment (something I'm unapologetically guilty of). Here's the relevant piece.

Because Americans are so mobile, even a mild preference for living with like-minded neighbours leads over time to severe segregation. An accountant in Texas, for example, can live anywhere she wants, so the liberal ones move to the funky bits of Austin while the more conservative ones prefer the exurbs of Dallas. Conservative Californians can find refuge in Orange County or the Central Valley.

Over time, this means Americans are ever less exposed to contrary views. In a book called “Hearing the Other Side”, Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania crunched survey data from 12 countries and found that Americans were the least likely of all to talk about politics with those who disagreed with them.

Intriguingly, the more educated Americans become, the more insular they are. (Hence Mr Miller's confusion.) Better-educated people tend to be richer, so they have more choice about where they live. And they are more mobile. One study that covered most of the 1980s and 1990s found that 45% of young Americans with a college degree moved state within five years of graduating, whereas only 19% of those with only a high-school education did.

There is a danger in this. Studies suggest that when a group is ideologically homogeneous, its members tend to grow more extreme. Even clever, fair-minded people are not immune. Cass Sunstein and David Schkade, two academics, found that Republican-appointed judges vote more conservatively when sitting on a panel with other Republicans than when sitting with Democrats. Democratic judges become more liberal when on the bench with fellow Democrats.

America's Big Sort (
My initial thought was that perhaps people were realizing studies like this "There's No Arguing With Conservatives" (which incidentally should read, "There's No Arguing With 'Conservatives'") had some weight to them. If the term "conservative" weren't absolutely meaningless at this point, I might consider myself one. I would prefer, where some sort of socialism must be done, that it would be done on a closer to home level-- that allows for pluralism as well as better accountability. The federal government is so distant to us that it's barely more than a concept. I know: something like that could never happen, historically the shift was necessary for civil rights (does that mean it would be the same in the present?), I'm a wishful thinker, etc. I'm just not looking forward to everything being the same.

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