Deliberation and Infotopia
By Cass Sunstein
A few months ago, I tried to find out, collaborating with David Schkade (of the University of San Diego) and Reid Hastie (of the University of Chicago). We organized a kind of Deliberation Day in Colorado. Two cities were chosen. The first was Boulder, a predominantly liberal area. The second was Colorado Springs, which is generally Bush country.
Over 60 citizens were brought together to explore three of the most controversial issues of the day: affirmative action, an international treaty to control global warming, and civil unions for same-sex couples. People in Boulder deliberated with others from Boulder, and people from Colorado Springs deliberated with people from Colorado Springs. Thus people were generally sorted into groups of like-minded people. Citizens expressed their views in three ways: anonymously, before deliberation began; in small groups, which deliberated and tried to reach consensus; and anonymously, after deliberation concluded.
Our key question was this: What would be the effect of deliberation on people’s views? There were three major findings.
(1) Liberals in Boulder became distinctly more liberal on all three issues. Conservatives in Colorado Springs become distinctly more conservative on all three issues. The result of deliberation was to produce extremism — even though deliberation consisted merely of a brief (15 minute) exchange of facts and opinions!
(2) The division between liberals and conservatives became much more pronounced. Before deliberation, the median view, among Boulder groups, was not always so far apart from the median view among Colorado Springs groups. After deliberation, the division increased — by a lot.
(3) Deliberation much decreased diversity among liberals; it also much decreased diversity among conservatives. After deliberation, members of nearly all groups showed, in their post-deliberation statements, far more uniformity than they did before deliberation. (For a PDF file with detailed results from the experiment, click on the link below.)
It’s true that this experiment might seem a bit artificial. On most days, people who agree with one another do not come together into deliberating groups. But much of the time, political discussion does occur among like-minded types — and the consequences of their interactions are often to increase extremism, intensify polarization, and squelch internal disagreement.
The Internet (and, more recently, the blogosphere) has inspired many people, including me, to imagine a future information utopia (infotopia for short): a perfect aggregation of the widely dispersed information that individuals have. If an Infotopia is the goal, there are some pretty sure ways of not getting us there. One of those ways is captured in the Colorado experiment. Unfortunately, the Colorado experiment is echoed in many events in the real world — among Democrats, among Republicans, in the White House, on corporate boards, and even in the blogosphere.
Cass Sunstein is Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago Law School, a contributing editor at the New Republic and the American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to such publications as The New York Times and The Washington Post. His latest book is Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge.