Mind & Body

What If Political Parties Arrive at Their Positions by Pure Chance?

When political debates get heated, it's easy to think that Democrats and Republicans are so different that they might as well be separate species. Their extreme, opposing views on the world seem so deeply rooted that's hard to imagine anyone softening their position, much less changing their mind. But new research suggests that those views aren't as deeply rooted as most people think. In fact, in an alternate universe, they could have easily gone a completely different way.

A Flip of the Partisan Coin

Researchers from Cornell University's Social Dynamics Laboratory wanted to get to the bottom of polarizing political arguments and explain some of the more puzzling aspects of partisan views. In a press release, the study's lead author, Michael Macy, wondered, "Why have the major political parties shifted positions on issues like free trade, balanced budgets, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage and trust in science? And how is it that voters on both sides often have contradictory positions on abortion rights and capital punishment?"

The findings, published in Science Advances, show something mildly shocking: It seems that luck, rather than deeply held ideals, leads political parties to their positions on a variety of issues. Why? Macy and his research team point to "opinion cascades," where prominent folks are the first to choose their opinions (and do it sort of randomly) and the rest of the population follows. The cascades can push us into surprising extremes.

Peeking Across the Aisle

In another world, hits like "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" could have easily been flops. Studies show that the same goes for musical hits. What becomes popular is just as much up to chance as it is to quality. But, the Cornell researchers wondered, could the same be true in politics? Could partisan political positions look different in another world?

To figure out exactly how sides are chosen and opinion cascades get going, the researchers recruited more than 2,000 people and asked them to identify their allegiance to the Democratic or Republican party. Then, they sorted those Democrats and Republicans into ten "parallel worlds" that were closed off from one another.

With the participants in their artificial political bubbles, researchers asked for their opinions on a variety of cultural and political issues. For some worlds, those responses were private. But in eight of the 10 worlds, participants were shown how the other Democrats and Republicans landed on each issue. Each party's support was influenced by participant responses in real time.

In an Alternate Universe, You Love What You Hate

The findings show that the first opinions to be registered were up to chance. A lone Democrat or Republican who supported an issue in one world was just as likely to oppose the issue in another of the ten independent worlds. But as soon as the social influence of political party was introduced to the equation, the opinion cascades started. In the conditions where people could see the survey results, social influence more than doubled the amount of partisan alignment.

Basically, in the worlds that left participants blinded to how political parties were dividing, none of the issues became politically aligned. But in the worlds where opinions were public, unrelated issues tied themselves to party. And we're talking very unrelated: For example, in "World 3," Republicans chose to support great books, obedience, and gas engines. Democrats supported robot lawyers, licensed jurors, and group loyalty.

And between worlds, there wasn't much correlation between the political views — for many issues, Democrats and Republicans in one world were just as likely to have extreme positions as those in another world were to have positions that were opposite, but just as extreme. "In one world, it was Democrats who favored using AI to spot online criminals, and in another world it was Republicans," Macy said in a press release. "In one world, Democrats favored classic books, and in another world, Republicans favored the classics. In one world, Democrats were more optimistic about the future and in another world, it was Republicans."

Now, it's obvious that we don't make political decisions in a vacuum. Macy and the researchers note that while the opinion cascade is strong, religious, cultural, and ideological commitments also influence our views. But when partisan influencers make their choices known first, opinion cascades can easily follow.

What the researchers hope is that this research will make us more tolerant of others' opinions. Next time you get frustrated about someone else's views on a controversial topic, remember that they might be influenced more by who surrounds them, not by a deeply held ideological difference. Even better, take that moment to reexamine your own views. They might not go as deep as you think.

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Learn more about how and why people think so differently in "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion" by Jonathan Haidt. It's one of our podcast producer's favorites, and the audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Kelsey Donk September 26, 2019

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