We’ve seen in The Big Sort that over the past fifty years people have been geographically sorting themselves into likeminded communities. What are the social psychological consequences of such a phenomenon?
Bishop presents something called the “Risky Shit” effect. People have an innate need to find safety in groups. He reviews studies like the one where subjects are asked to consider options when a competent chess player draws the top ranked competitor for his chess match. He has a choice between a risky move that, if successful, will result in certain victory but, if unsuccessful, will result in certain defeat, or he could adopt a more conventional strategy. At what odds of success should the player take the risky option? (i. e., 10%?, 20%?, 30%? …)
Studies consistently point out that the group, after discussing the issue, will chose a more risky approach then the average of the answers the individuals privately reported before interacting. When the scenario is revisited from the standpoint of the chess champion, subjects privately take a conservative approach but after group discussion take a more conservative approach than the average of the individuals. Either way, subjects became more extreme in the direction of the average group opinion. You got group polarization.
Bishop doesn’t explicitly raise the issue but I would add that single-minded groups create shared narratives complete with heroes, villains, and storylines about the underlying forces driving events. This narrative becomes the lens through which all information is received (or rejected) and interpreted.
The consequences of homogenized regions are significant. For instance, with political parties, when one party becomes dominant in the community, those in the minority drop out of community involvement and may physically remove themselves from the community. The majority is decreasingly exposed to any contrary views. They become more committed and radical in their views. Often, a higher percentage of people vote in homogenous areas than in contested areas simply because it gives them feelings of solidarity with the group. Thomas Jefferson wrote 200 years ago that social isolation is the seedbed of extremism and social science is proving him right.
Other studies Bishop writes about showed that when it comes to news reporting people simply “… don’t believe what they see or hear if runs counter to their existing beliefs.” (75) Even if both sides of an issue are presented, people only give credence to the information that matches their views. This inclination is called confirmation bias; people look only for information that confirms their views. One researcher “… found that voters watch debates in order to reinforce what they already believe,” not to learn about issues. (75)
Thus, we end up with a baffled American public. So many of us live in our own echo chambers that when events that don’t conform to our narrative and our shared community experience, we conclude there must be some conspiracy or some minority radical element at work. “No one we know thinks like that and we’re normal.”
My experience has been that sometimes people become aware that they are living in an echo chamber and they’re no longer in congruence with the community. They break out of that community to find another that accepts them and makes them feel comfortable. They declare they no longer live in a narrow-minded echo chamber like the one they escaped. In reality, they’ve just swapped echo chambers and the only reason they don’t realize they are in a new one is because everything around them now tells them their perspective is “normal.” In the church world, I see this with mainliners who join evangelical mega-churches, evangelicals who become emergent, and with host of other switches as well. I see it with politics and other aspects of life as well.