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February 02, 2006


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Kimball Corson

This is a shocking result, although I continue to wonder how general it is. I think the presumption of most of us is just the opposite: intelligent discussion narrows differences and moves us toward consensus.

An implication here is that we should not discuss our differences and adopt a dictum of never discussing religion, politics or anything controversial with anyone you want to get along with. Disturbing conclusions.

Albert Alschuler

But, but, but where does this lead??? Is deliberation a bad thing? The first amendment prevents the government from banning it, but should we discourage it? I am confident that deliberation works sometimes; Cass Sunstein himself has persuaded me to change my mind on occasion. And bringing people together sometimes makes them like each other more. Blacks and whites in the south appear to get along better now than they did 40 years ago (though the word for the process that makes this happen probably isn't deliberation). Where do we go with this? Help!


Just a quick clarification: who was deliberating with whom? Were the liberals deliberating with other liberals, or with conservatives?

Cass Sunstein

Sorry if it wasn't clear -- the Boulder people were deliberating with the Boulder people, and the Colorado Springs people were deliberating with the Colorado Spings people. Liberals with liberals, conservatives with conservatives. I'll see if there's a way to clarify this in the main post.


At first it's less worrying that like-minded people become more extreme after deliberation. It leaves open the possibility that they will moderate their beliefs when exposed to differing opinion. On second thought, though, people do tend to choose where to live, what to watch on TV, which internet sites to visit, etc. based on ideology. We can't be confident that people are exposing themselves to alternative viewpoints. And no, I haven't read Republic.com (yet).

Then there are ideological "entrepreneurs" who sabotage productive debate. So for instance, local conservatives often try to prevent certain movies or television shows from coming to their communities. Clinton allegedly didn't allow affirmative action opponents to participate in his dialogue on race. Possibly the Colorado experiment helps explain this behavior: people like James Dobson thrive on extremism and stand to gain from the exclusion of dissenting views. It's not clear that there are countervailing forces toward moderation or open debate.

The Law Fairy

Thanks for the post, Prof. Sunstein -- it's always fun to see my hometown's name pop up :)

I grew up in Colorado Springs, and it's definitely true that people there are *very* conservative. The thing about the city that always struck me as so interesting was how very politicized it could be (granted, in college I was involved in local politics, so my perspective here could be skewed). The vast majority of people there are solidly conservative, which is unsurprising given the prevalence of the military in the area, the fact that it's the headquarters of Focus on the Family, and the fact that the city's founder, way back when, gave lots of land to churches at no charge (I don't remember how many churches there are, but it's *at least* more than triple the number of Starbucks's, including one of the largest evangelical churches in the country, New Life Church).

What I found was that because most people were so conservative, the few liberals in town were much fiercer and more vocal. This led to polarization -- the conservatives don't want their territory encroached upon, and the liberals don't want to be shut out. After I moved out of state I realized that deliberation isn't what really occurred in the Springs. People there argued to prove they were right. Real deliberation, in my mind, comes when people come to a conversation with an open mind, ready and willing to discuss new ideas and possibly even change their minds. That's not what happens in Colorado Springs or even the majority of political debates. What happens in political debates isn't genuine conversation.

I find it unsurprising that speaking with groups that reinforce your worldview makes you more extreme. I've seen this happen in Colorado Springs and at political rallies many times. You give your opinion, and when, rather than being sincerely challenged, it's greeted with approval, you're spurred on to keep going with it. When you start with views that lean one way, they'll get to leaning further that way if you find too much uninhibited approval.

Prof. Alschuler, I don't think this means we can't have free speech. I think it's an unfortunate consequence of human pride and stupidity. It means that the voices of reason have to work that much harder to be heeded.

Kimball Corson

Law Fairy raises an excellent point: what do we mean by the words "expressed their views" and "deliberation?" Where on the line between rant or flaming and consideration do these concepts lie.

Kimball Corson

James’ initial post is also excellent. Perhaps it is not surprising that like- minded people reinforce each others' views and that thereby allows them to become more extreme in those views and their expression. (Nothing like reinforcements at the ready before the battle begins.) I think that is often the case. Preaching to the choir allows abandonment of qualifications and permits over-simplification and polarization, whereas deliberation or discussion in good faith with those of likely contrary views does not. Viewed so, the results of the test are not therefore as shocking as I first imagined.


Sorry to post so much, but I had another thought. It would be interesting to know what is driving the tendency toward extremism. It might just follow a simple means/ends model. An example will illustrate what I mean. Say you throw a liberal and a conservative into a room. The liberal wants higher CAFE standards (mandatory fuel efficiency for cars). The conservative doesn't want any restrictions whatsoever. Both have as their desired end wealth maximization (they favor environmentalism only insofar as it is cost-justified).

The liberal convinces the conservative that there are externalities from burning gasoline. The conservative then realizes that some restrictions might be necessary. She goes on to attack CAFE standards on other grounds, though, arguing that a tax on gasoline is a better means to the given end of reducing gas consumption to its efficient level. The liberal, convinced, changes his position and now opposes higher CAFE standards (contingent on higher gas taxes).

In this model, you could theoretically get such a discussion among like-minded people, but ideological diversity tends to provide lots of different ideas and facts to work with. You can also see how views become more extreme during deliberation in a like-minded group: people strengthen their factual beliefs when other people share them (a kind of information cascade).

Now of course, there are also differences about ends, not just means. These differences are much harder to resolve, and it's unclear that any rational process can bring consensus. A few points:

1. What seems like disagreement about ends can actually be a disagreement about means. I might support democracy not as an end in itself, but as a means to human dignity and ultimately utility. Such disagreement ought to be susceptible to factual resolution.

2. Much argument about ends will occur on an arational, emotional plane. I might not have war-avoidance as an end until I've seen pictures of girls running from napalm or something.

So does this model fit the Colorado observations, or is something else going on?


Will there be a phase ii in which the libs and cons get to deliberate with one another? That seems like the more interesting test to me, unless we're interested in documenting the degree to which awareness of group membership and solidarity works to undercut impulses towards moderation or accommodation of opposing views.

If that is what we're interested in, then doesn't the frame in which deliberations are implemented -- every little nuance of social and discursive context -- likely have more to do with the outcome than the general fact or phenomenon of "deliberation" itself? Are you sure they were "deliberating" rather than "caucusing"?

Paul Gowder

I second what Phil said. I don't think the people who advocate deliberative democracy (etc.) propose that people merely get in the room with people who they agree with. I don't know what an experiment like this demonstrates, without a second experiment (ideally using the same people, on different issues) where the libs and the cons go into the same room and deliberate.

Also, I would question the decision to limit the issues discussed to ideologically charged ones like affirmative action and same-sex marriage. Using highly ideologically charged issues would seem to stack the deck in favor of groupthink (in the divided sessions) or polarization (in joint sessions). On the other hand, people might show more willingness to be convinced by argument when considering issues that are identified with one political position or another but are not so furiously controversial (immigration, the minimum wage, hate crime laws, etc.).

Cass, would it be possible for you to e-mail me a copy of the paper?


This is just another case of group polarization, right? To avoid that, you'd want to have diverse groups (with at least one dissenter per group), and you'd want to put some care into how you structure the discussion. Did you at least provide the participants with some information about the three issues before the discussion?


When I see the labels "liberal" and "conservative", I'm reminded of "The 'Wildavsky Heuristic': The Cultural Orientation of Mass Political Opinion"


This paper just happens to observe on p.29:

"Other experiments might identify influences that qualify the shaping power of cultural worldview. Deliberation, for example, might trump cultural orientation under the right circumstances."

(Via The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School http://research.yale.edu/culturalcognition/ )


Prof. Sunstein,

Perhaps you will follow up on this with further posts or further research, but how much of this can be attributed to some variation on the doctrine of revealed preferences - that is, initially not knowing who would be reading the initial responses or their purpose, the participants tended to put down "moderate" or "socially acceptable" answers and, after discussion showed that their "extreme" views were "normal," felt more comfortable to discuss their true positions? (Think of this as the difference between polling and voting - many people are unwilling to tell pollsters that they, for instance, oppose same-sex unions because they do not want to appear "intolerant," but - as election-day results consistently show - they are happy to express their true views in the privacy of the voting booth.)

Steven Duffield

1. I think Leif is onto something. I work in a highly political environment (the Senate) and I see that dynamic playing out in small group settings all the time. Folks wade into group dynamics more tenderly when they might have to get into an argument; basic conflict aversion causes them to hide the intensity of their preferences. In safe space, truth can come out. I'd have to revisit the studies on this (I think I read a paper you wrote back in '00 or so) to know if this is truly controlled for. It doesn't seem to be in the way it's described in the main post above.
2. It's interesting that this pos about group polarization would follow the previous one, in which the Law School shut down a quite vigorous debate in the Comments section between people who had very different perspectives. True, it was done under the cloak of "incivility" (and in a way that was arguably uncivil) but isn't it a truism that deliberative democracy is a rough business? It's just so ironic that this post would be lamenting that lack of discussion and the purported effects of of group isolation even as this blog eliminates a vehicle to address it.

The Law Fairy

Leif raises an excellent point. I suspect he's largely correct -- confronted by either people from whom the deliberator receives positive feedback, or people to whom the deliberator is almost diametrically opposed, that person seems likely to become more vocal about his or her "real" views. If the person is unafraid of a potentially hurtful negative reaction, he or she will open up. Similarly, if such a negative reaction has already occurred, the person has nothing to fear from revealing those views.

As someone whose own views have most effectively been challenged by people with whom I can find at least some basic common ground, I think Leif's point bears testing out.

Steven Duffield

To elaborate on Leif's point: doesn't every person have the experience of entering into a social situation while holding his cards close to the vest of controversial issues such as religion and politics? In fact, aren't we taught that it's just good manners? Yet, people get together in church, or in a political rally, and they're going to be willing to talk openly about their views, and -- which is perhaps more helpful to your thesis -- they are also going to be more receptive to other rationales that support their initial instincts once they know whom they're dealing with.

Incidentally, on Leif's example re same-sex marriage polling, it's entirely true. I've tracked (for the Senate Republican Policy Committee) the polling-versus-ballot results in all the states that had related constitutional amendments on the ballot in the last few years, and there's a consistent gap of 5-12 points in the way he suggests. It could be turnout-driven, but it was true in 2004, when turnout was high overall.

Kelly Almond

Perhaps, the forum itself may have contributed to the polarization. Participants may have got it in their heads somehow that this was a kind of sparring off match. I could well be desribed as a liberal and it feels good to be around like minded individuals but I enjoy challenging them to their own beliefs so that I can be challenged in my own.


I think Kelly is on to something. How was the forum framed? Were the participants told they were taking part in a "debate," which would suggest conflict, or were they told they were engaged in a discussion in which the goals were to come to agreement?

Kelly Almond

I am the sole Liberal Democrat with respect to my Father's side AND my Mother's side of the Family. My spouse is politically Liberal like me. Her Father is a Republican but he is an agnostic. Go figure.

Over the years, all family members have come to know where I stand and to argue with them is simply futile. I am constantly trying to find a common ground. At one point a few years back, my cousin asked me why I was "arguing with family?" I found this odd. I guess I was arguing but I was also stating my opinion. But because he knew I was the lone minority he obviously felt that I was causing trouble on purpose. We have since stopped talking politics. It's just too detrimental. It bothers me because I feel like I am censoring myself but what do you do? Maybe at this stage of the ball game it is enough for them to remember that they like me AND they know I'm a Liberal, so maybe they might think that all Liberals are not scum sucking traitors. HA!

Anyway, when I am with like minded people we go wild criticizing the right wing. When I am with a mixed crowd; I calm it down a bit. I want to strike a balance between being respecful but speaking my mind. This is often difficult but it is joyous when somehow we find a common ground.


Professor Sunstein, I follow your work and found the Colorado experiment – and just generally the idea of echo chambers leading to political polarization – to be fascinating. With this in mind, I was wondering what you thought of the a la carte cable pricing issue currently under debate in Congress.

Fueled by competing concerns about indecency, consumer protection and free market economics, a la carte pricing is the type of social “issue” that politicians love to elevate to higher profile, but in the context of political and social discourse I find it alarming that the FCC and so many members of Congress encourage a la carte as a legal mandate. By the FCC’s own admission, less-watched niche channels would likely fail, leading to less viewpoint diversity on television. Thus, a legal a la carte requirement feels like a reaction by the government to the on-demand, “playlist” media culture that places each American in his/her own viewpoint silo.

Seems like a curious mandate to me. Thoughts?


Hi, im Mark and I guess im introducing myself!!

I came across this site using 'stumble' (Firefox) and thought all the ideas flooating around here seem realy interesting! (Altohugh I don't seem to agree with everything lol)

Well, thats me :)!

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