Cass Sunstein’s “Breaking Up the Echo” (New York Times) points to the impenetrability of the bubbles in which Liberals and Conservative exist. Nothing changes our minds. Within our bubbles we talk with like-minded people and read and watch media supportive of our positions. So the question arises: Would balanced reporting, in which all sides of the issues were presented, change anything? Apparently not. Sunstein refers to research indicating that people assimilate “balanced” information selectively, focusing on items that support their initial views while discrediting those that oppose them.
Sunstein’s piece brought back memories of an accidental piece of research I conducted long ago, one that may shed some light both on the formation of bubbles and the possibility of bursting them.
In the 1960s I was a young teaching assistant at Boston University. My primary assignment was to conduct weekly hour-long discussion sessions with sections from the large freshmen lecture classes. Each week I would hold ten such sessions over a two-day period. My assignment for one particular week was to do “something” about statistics. So here’s what I did.
I selected what was then a hot topic in Boston, Massachusetts– segregation or integration of city neighborhoods. I created a brief instrument measuring attitudes for or against integration. In each of my ten sections I divided the class randomly, one half was to argue in favor of integration, the other opposed. Students had little difficulty getting into their positions, and heated discussions soon followed. After approximately 20 minutes I stopped the debate and administered the attitude survey.
In all ten sections, the results were identical. Those who argued for integration had more favorable attitudes toward integration, and those who argued against had more negative attitudes. And in each class the differences were statistically significant. (Remember, statistics was the apparent purpose of the activity.) What was most stunning to me was the students’ insistence that the debate had not changed their attitudes, that the survey simply reflected attitudes they had brought with them to class. As implausible as this explanation was, it too was statistically significant. Twenty minutes to create a perfect bubble – one in which you believe there is no bubble. You are simply seeing things as they are.
Depressing? But is there a potential upside to this? If this is the process by which bubbles are created, can the same process be employed to burst them or at least open up the unquestionable for questioning. If “something about statistics” hadn’t been my assignment, and if my wits were about me, I might have had the pros and cons switch sides and debate again. Then I might have thought to bring them together for an open conversation. “What are you seeing out of this experience?” Would there have been some loosening, some seeing the complexity, the pros and the cons? Maybe.
That was that, this is now. It may be that this generation of adults is beyond repair. We will continue to slug it out from inside our bubbles – pure right versus pure wrong whichever side we are on. But can we do something for the next generation? I would propose complexity thinking as a component of early education. Exercises in which students would debate complex issues first from one side, then the other, then explore what they are seeing from such exercises. My guess is children would dive into this process and find it fascinating, and we might succeed in creating a generation capable of dealing with the complexity of complex issues. I suspect that parents are likely to be the problem. Do bubble-parents want bubble-free children?