Sunday, March 31, 2013

The problems with like-minded people

In the articles by Cass Sunstein, he focused more on the individual in “The Daily Me” and more on groups in “Four Big Problems.” However, both articles discuss the problems that arise among either individual or group communication in today’s networked society.

An underlying problem for both individuals and groups comes when an extreme or erroneous viewpoint is formed and held, then shared and accepted by others. As Sunstein says in Daily Me, “Choices that seem perfectly reasonable in isolation may, when taken together, badly disserve democratic goals.” The “four problems” Sunstein describes for deliberating groups are:
  1. They amplify the errors of their members
  2. They do not elicit the information that their members have
  3. They are subject to cascade effects, in which the blind lead the blind
  4. Show a tendency to group polarization, by which groups go to extremes
Sunstein also adds, “As might be expected, a group’s focus on shared information increases with the size of the group. For this reason, many minds can go very badly wrong.” This statement looks at the problem from a many-to-many perspective, while his statement about choices made in isolation in Daily Me is a statement from a one-to-many perspective.

In both cases, Sunstein recommends having access to a diverse set of viewpoints to help counter these problems. In Daily Me, Sunstein says, “People should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself. Such encounters often involve topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find quite irritating. They are important partly to ensure against fragmentation and extremism, which are predictable outcomes of any situation in which like-minded people speak only with themselves.”

The issue of people speaking only with other like-minded people is a frightening one. Many people can easily live in a bubble and never have to face any opposition to their viewpoints, when, in fact if they did hear diverse viewpoints, they would probably see their error in their ways. I have definitely found this phenomenon in child-rearing websites. If you don’t believe in the “cry-it-out” bedtime method, or co-sleeping, or in spanking, I’m sure you can find several others who agree with you -- or vice versa.  

I noticed an increase in the number of infants wearing helmets at daycare a year ago and asked our doctor if Will should wear one because he had a small flat area on the back of his head. My doctor asked me if I was asking because I had seen a lot of helmets lately. I said yes, and he said that a helmet clinic recently opened in Omaha so several doctors are referring people there. Until it opened, no one was going that route unless something was seriously wrong. Because of the “availability heuristic” and “familiarity” that Sunstein mentioned, I was ready to jump on the helmet bandwagon. I’m glad I didn’t follow the group since Will’s head rounded out on its own. I'm not saying those other kids didn't need the helmets, but I found it interesting that my mind went immediately to thinking that Will needed one because I was suddenly seeing them all the time.

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