Why Most People Tend to Talk About Politics Only with those Who Agree with Them

Economist Robin Hanson has a blog post discussing a recent study showing that most people tend to limit conversations about politics to those who agree with their views. This is not just a matter of people tending to have friends and acquaintances who have similar views. Even when there are people in our social circle who have divergent political views, the study shows that we are far more likely to talk about politics with those we agree with. Much previous research reaches similar conclusions. Moreover, we see the same pattern in people’s choices about the media they follow on political issues. Conservatives are likely to watch conservative TV channels, and read conservative newspapers, magazines, and blogs. Liberals have the opposite pattern. If you are a regular VC reader, you are far more likely to to be a libertarian or a conservative than not. If you regularly read a liberal political or legal blog, chances are that you’re a liberal yourself.

When people do encounter opposing arguments, they tend to evaluate them in a highly biased way, in effect holding them to a much higher standard than they apply to arguments that support their own views. Moreover, as Diana Mutz shows, most of these tendencies are especially pronounced among people who are most interested in politics and have the most strongly held political views.

Perhaps the avoidance of political talks with people we disagree with is in part driven by a desire to avoid social awkwardness. But that can’t explain the avoidance of opposing media. Moreover, conversations about politics with those we disagree with are awkward at least in part because people tend to be intolerant of opposing views.

All of this is highly irrational if the goal of reading and talking about politics is to seek out the truth. As John Stuart Mill famously put it, a truth-seeker should make a special effort to seek out opposing viewpoints, and try to evaluate them in an unbiased way:

He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them… [H]e must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.

The evidence is less puzzling if truth-seeking is not the main goal of most political conversations or most people’s efforts to read about politics. Rather, many people enjoy having their preexisting views reinforced and like the experience of associating with their fellow “political fans” who support the same side as they do. Because the chance that your vote in an election will be decisive is infinitesmally small, there is little payoff for seeking out political truths just so you can be a better-informed voter. And most nonexperts have few other incentives to seek out the truth either. Being exposed to opposing arguments is often emotionally unpleasant, and giving them a fair hearing can be even more painful – especially if you are strongly committed to your own opinions. And the payoff for all that pain is usually very small, so why bother? Unfortunately, while such ignorance and close-mindedness is individually rational, it can cause terrible collective outcomes.

That’s not to suggest that people deliberately embrace political views they know to be false. But it’s easy to be cognitively lazy about seeking out opposing arguments and controlling your biases against them when you do run across them. Obviously, most people are not completely indifferent to opposing evidence on political issues. Sometimes the evidence against you is so obvious and overwhelming that it’s hard to ignore even if you want to do so. When Germany lost World War II, many Germans who had supported Hitler were forced to admit that he had led them to disaster. On most political issues, however, the evidence is much less stark and therefore it’s much easier to insulate yourself from possible challenges to your beliefs. Such insulation is not always impossible to overcome. Otherwise, no one would ever change any of their strongly held political views, except in the aftermath of WWII-like disasters. But it is often extremely difficult.