Sociology experiment shows how parties can flip positions

Cass Sunstein describes a sociology study that could help explain how attachment to a political party can lead to divergent political positions:

Here’s how the experiment worked. All participants (consisting of thousands of people) were initially asked whether they identified with Republicans or Democrats. They were then divided into 10 groups. In two of them, participants were asked what they thought about 20 separate issues — without seeing the views of either political party on those issues. This was the “independence condition.” In the eight other groups, participants could see whether Republicans or Democrats were more likely to agree with a position. This was the “influence condition.”

In the influence condition, each participant was asked his own view, which was used to update the relative level of support of each party. That updated level was displayed, in turn, to the next participant in the same group.

The authors carefully selected issues on which people would not be likely to begin with strong convictions along party lines. For example: “Companies should be taxed in the countries where they are headquartered rather than in the countries where their revenues are generated.” And, “The exchange of cryptocurrencies (such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, or Litecoin) should be banned in the United States.” Or this: “Artificial intelligence software should be used to detect online blackmailing on email systems.”

The authors hypothesized that in the influence condition, it would be especially hard to predict where Republicans and Democrats would end up. If the early Republican participants in one group ended up endorsing a position, other Republicans would be more likely to endorse it as well — and Democrats would be more likely to reject it. But if the early Republicans rejected it, other Republicans would reject it as well — and Democrats would endorse it.

And the findings:

Across groups, Democrats and Republicans often flipped positions, depending on what the early voters did. On most of the 20 issues, Democrats supported a position in at least one group but rejected it in at least one other, and the same was true of Republicans. As the researchers put it, “Chance variation in a small number of early movers” can have major effects in tipping large populations — and in getting both Republicans and Democrats to embrace a cluster of views that actually have nothing to do with each other.

This seems like a good reminder regarding humans: attachments to groups are very important. When faced with taking in information, what the groups we identify with matters. This is the case even in an age where we would claim to be individuals.

Studying social change more broadly is a difficult task. It is perhaps easiest to see large-scale change after it has already happened and observers can look back and pick out a path by which society changed. It can be quite hard to see social change as it is occurring when it is unclear what exactly is happening or in which direction a trend line will go. It can also be difficult to see changes that did not take off or trends that did not go very far.

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