Technology is herding us into like-minded political tribes

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Why is politics becoming so polarised? This is the question that agonises centre-ground parties around the world. In the US, the election of Donald Trump appalled those who believed a bigoted braggart could never win the presidency.

Last year’s EU referendum revealed a nation divided as if by a diamond-cutter. Jeremy Corbyn, a son of the hard Left was twice chosen by Labour as its leader. It is a measure of how far politics has drifted from the centre that so many were relieved that the Front National’s Marine Le Pen secured only 34 per cent in the final round of the French presidential election.

In spite of all this, it remains commonplace to argue that voters tend to cluster in the middle ground, except in circumstances of great pressure and grievance. Many liberals reassure themselves that we are merely witnessing an opening of the steam valve on the global pressure cooker – an angry, populist response to the crash of 2008, its painful aftereffects and the transformative power of the technology – and that normal service will be resumed before long.

But is it right to assume that the default location of modern citizens is the political centre? Consider a study recently published in theĀ Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, in which 200 participants were presented with a choice. Either they could read and answer questions about an opinion they agreed with, and be rewarded with the chance to win $7 in a raffle, or they could carry out the same exercise with an opinion contrary to their own, with the potential to win $10.

The economically rational choice was clearly to take the $10 option. But, remarkably, 63 per cent opted for the $7 ticket so they could read an argument that chimed with their beliefs (the subject was same-sex marriage). When asked what it was like to listen to a political opponent, the participants compared the experience to “taking out the trash”, “standing in line for 20 minutes” and discomfort not far off “having a tooth pulled”. As one of the study’s authors put it, “They don’t know what’s happening on the other side and they don’t want to know.”

Of course, people like to imagine that they form their opinions in a more cerebral, considered fashion, weighing up the facts and the arguments and drawing a conclusion. To support this conviction, the philosopher John Stuart Mill is often quoted: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.”

Well, yes. But is that actually how we think? Studies show that human beings have a tendency towards “homophilous sorting” – that is, to congregate with the like-minded and to ignore information or analysis that conflicts with our presumptions.

The counter-argument is that this has always been the case, since one tribe fought with another over the gods in which they believed. Certainly, there is nothing new in political factionalism or cantonisation. What has changed, and radically so, is the technological context.

More than newspapers and even cable television, the digital revolution has put rocket-boosters under existing instincts. Social media and search engines are powered by algorithms that drive us, by design, towards arguments we will like and people who share our opinions. It is a bleak irony: the greatest source of information constructed in human history is being used to tamp down what we know and think already.

As Barack Obama put it in his farewell address, “We become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.”

If we want to escape those bubbles, we are going to have to take action: not only to broaden our own horizons, but to teach the next generation to seek out differing opinions online and elsewhere as a matter of necessity. But the first step is to acknowledge that the political polarisation of our age is more than a global tantrum that will quickly pass. History has awful lessons to teach us about the cost of such complacency.

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