Playing “Controversial Opinion.”

Earlier this month, Sean Blanda, writing at, had this thought-provoking essay that relates to a lot of our recent content here at The Civility Blog. Titled The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb, he comments on the impulse toward a team mentality when it comes to matters of opinion from politics to taste, and observes some of the ways that this leads to closed minds and an outright dismissal of anybody we perceive to be part of the opposing faction.

The problem, he says, stems from a psychological concept called false-consensus bias: the assumption we make that our values and beliefs are normal or widely held. It is fed by contemporary media outlets, which are increasingly segregated by ideological point of view. And it leads to the worst kind of echo chamber, one where those inside are increasingly convinced that everyone shares their world view, that their ranks are growing when they aren’t.

Blanda writes that the unfortunate results of this are a fundamental rejection of the possibility to consider that the people who don’t feel the same way you do might be right, and an assumption that opinions work like menu cards, where people who like the same TV shows, or movies, or music you do must also share the same views on social welfare, or banking reform, or immigration. It is a preference to see the Other Side as a cardboard cut out, he says, rather than as complicated individual human beings. And it is ultimately about belittling people rather than trying to understand them.

The problem that Blanda is describing is related to several we’ve talked about here before. False-consensus bias, like confirmation bias, is exacerbated by filter bubbling – the situation where media outlets, and especially websites, serve us content that is tailored to our established viewing preferences. And it is parallel to some of the research we wrote about in December: the idea that party affiliation in the United States is increasingly a matter of tribalism rather than mere electoral politics.

It is difficult, on the one hand, to fight the notion that our own points of view are what’s normal when – because of the sum of our previous search queries – companies like Google and Facebook adapt some or all of what we see to what they think we want. And on the other hand, it is difficult not to conceive of political identity as team identity when the filters account for aesthetic and political choices in exactly the same way. If our personalized list of Facebook trending topics, for example, consistently places filtered political news next to science, business, and culture, it only makes sense that our brains begin to fit them all together.

In any case, in his essay, Sean Blanda offers some useful suggestions for how to overcome this kind of thinking. He tells us that it is imperative that we have conversations with people with whom we disagree, and that in those conversations, we must not try to “win”:

Don’t try to “convince” anyone of your viewpoint. Don’t score points by mocking them to your peers. Instead try to “lose.” Hear them out. Ask them to convince you and mean it.

He suggests that we reconsider how we use social media. The next time you feel compelled to share a link, he suggests, ask yourself why you are doing it:

Is it because that link brings to light information you hadn’t considered? Or does it confirm your world view, reminding your circle of intellectual teammates that you’re not on the Other Side?

And he offers a compelling idea for a game that is, fundamentally, about instilling civility. He calls it Controversial Opinion, but it might as easily be called the same thing as his essay: The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb. The rules are simple, Blanda writes: don’t talk about what was shared during Controversial Opinion afterward and you aren’t allowed to “argue” — only to ask questions about why that person feels that way.

Each player in turn reveals opinions that they hold, but that they assume are unpopular, about any topic at all. And in the other players’ surprise, the illusion of homogeneity – of having a team or a tribe – is systematically destroyed. Like the intimate discussions that we somehow never seem to quite be able to have, Controversial Opinion reveals our collective diversity and requires that we seek to understand each other as people — not essentialize, or belittle, or make fun.

It requires respect to play. It requires empathy to play well. And it has the potential to be a gateway from which we can exit the filter bubble and move from adversarial confrontation to the sort of meaningful, civil discussion that has the potential to get things done.

Implicit Bias, Political Identity

Earlier this month, Ezra Klein of wrote a disturbing article about the changing nature of Americans’ identification with political parties. In it, he looks at the results of a recent study by political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood, whose research suggests that party affiliation isn’t simply an expression of our disagreements on ideology or issues. Rather, it’s a matter of tribalism: the transformation of party affiliation into a form of personal identity that reaches into almost every aspect of our lives.

In their study, titled “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines,” Iyengar and Westwood write about [PDF] an increasing intrusion of partisan behaviors into aspects of everyday life that are not ordinarily coded as political. They cite “likes” and “follows” for social media accounts associated with Republican and Democratic political figures, as well as for partisan television news-analysis hosts from networks like FOX News and MSNBC. They cite studies that suggest that residential neighborhoods are becoming increasingly politically homogeneous, and that parents are increasingly likely to express displeasure over the prospects of their offspring marrying into a family with a different party affiliation.

Implicit Bias, Political Identity

In an interview that Klein conducted for his article at Vox, Iyengar says that it’s almost certainly not a matter of increasing ideological extremism among voters from one party or another. If you look at Americans’ positions on the issues, Iyengar says, they are much closer to the center than their elected representatives. And yet, Klein writes, since the 1980s, Republicans’ feelings towards the Democratic Party, and Democrats’ feelings towards the Republican Party, have dropped off a cliff.

In order to find out how this works, Iyengar and Westwood conducted two experiments. In one, they used mock scholarship applications to measure participants’ political and racial biases. They impaneled 1,021 people and asked them to choose between fictional high-school age applicants displaying four characteristics: Democrat, Republican, African American, and Euro American.

The result was that, more than any other factor, it was party cue that exerted the strongest impact on selection for the largest number of participants. Regardless of qualifications like GPA, and regardless of the factor of race, Democratic leaners showed a stronger preference for the Democratic candidate and Republican leaners showed the same – though somewhat less strongly – for the Republican candidate. Despite the fact that it was a non-partisan task, in other words, partisanship prevailed.

In the second experiment, they conducted what’s called an implicit association test with 2,000 participants. An implicit association test, Klein writes, measures the snap judgments your brain makes at speeds faster than conscious thought. Originally developed to measure racial bias, it requires the test taker to hit a letter on your keyboard when certain word and images flash together. And based on the speed of the response, it exposes the kinds of instant judgment we make before we have time to think.

Implicit Bias, Political Identity
Figure 2 of Iyengar and Westwood, “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization.”

The results of the implicit association test are much the same as in the scholarships experiment: people who identify as Republicans and people who identify as conservative both code things associated with the Republican Party as “good” and things associated with the Democratic Party as “bad”; while for Democrats and liberals, it is the inverse. The results suggest that it isn’t with the rational part of the mind – the part that responds to ideas and ideologies – that people make judgments. We make the judgments based on partisan biases, and then rationalize after the fact.

For Ezra Klein, the conclusion to be drawn from this is bleak: winning an argument, at least when you’re talking to co-partisans, is less about persuasion than about delegitimization. And for political candidates, it may not be worth campaigning across party lines at all. Like other forms of fandom – sports teams, for example – party and ideology have become powerful forms of personal identity. And this changes the playbook for the worse for cynical presidential candidates, policymakers, pundits, and anybody else looking to gain followers on the cheap.

But Klein’s conclusion isn’t the only way to read this data. One of the things that his article at Vox does is publish a version of the implicit association test that readers can take online. And this, when combined with the existing results, suggest a kind of opportunity.

Yes, according to Iyengar and Westwood’s study, American voters on the whole are plagued by what looks like the partisan version of racism: we’ve grown pretty strong biases against people and institutions we identify as being members of the out-group, and in favor of people and institutions we identify as being in our camp. But we also have the tools to reverse this trend. The fact is that the mechanism by which we make political decisions does not stop at our inborn biases. We have the capacity for rational decision-making, too. And now, understanding that bias is a fact, we can be alerted, rather than resigned, to its effect. And we can be vigilant about monitoring our decision-making processes more closely.

In other words: Iyengar and Westwood’s results can be seen not just as a sign of the times, but also as a call to action. And that’s what we here at the Institute would recommend. We would recommend that you, our readers, click through to take the implicit association test, and learn just how partisan you really are. And then use that data as a starting point to listen – really listen – to what candidates for political office are saying. It will certainly turn out that you disagree with many of the positions that candidates in the upcoming elections hold. But you may be surprised to learn that – adjusting for implicit bias – your disagreement across party lines is less uniform than you probably thought.

Ezra Klein isn’t wrong when he tells us that this sort of party identification is the stuff from which candidates generate loyalty. But it doesn’t have to be. What Iyengar and Westwood’s study does is expose the technique behind the trick. It gives us the means to opt out of partisan fandom.  We can opt out.  And by doing so, we can make better choices that, in the long run, may allow us to field better candidates, too.