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Social Networks Degrade Political Thinking

• October 24, 2012 • 11:45 AM

New research links suggests that discussing issues with a close-knit group can dampen the sophistication of one’s thinking on politics and public policy.

Plenty of research suggests having a strong, supportive social network has a positive impact on one’s health and well-being. But with an election approaching, it’s worth noting that this sort of interconnectedness apparently has a dark side.

It seems to make us less-sophisticated thinkers, at least in the realm of politics and policy.

That’s the conclusion of a study recently published in the journal Political Psychology. Researchers Elif Erisen and Cengiz Erisen conclude close-knit networks of friends and acquaintances apparently create “social bubbles,” which can limit “how one communicates with others and reasons about politics.”

The result, they add, is “low-quality thinking” about matters of great importance.

“Those who talk about politics with people they see often, and whom they value, are likely to be exposed to the political arguments of their close contacts often,” the researchers write. Their evidence suggests this dynamic leads to increased political polarization, and ultimately weakens our ability to deliberate on and coherently discuss the issues of the day.

Erisen and Erisen describe a study they conducted at the Stony Brook University Laboratory for Political Research, featuring 111 undergraduates enrolled in political science courses. The participants first filled out a survey designed to measure the extent, sophistication and cohesiveness of their social network.

Specifically, they were asked to name and describe four people they had discussed politics with during the previous six months. Among other things, they ranked each person’s level of interest and involvement in politics, as well as their party affiliation and ideology. They also reported how close they feel to each of the people on the list, and how much time they typically spend with them.

They were then asked about their attitudes towards energy policy and related environmental issues. The sophistication of their answers was measured by the number of thoughts they expressed; how many rationales they came up with to support their opinions; and the complexity of their thinking. Those who rated highest on the latter scale “used complex rules to compare and contrast alternative perspectives on the issue.”

The researchers then crunched the numbers, comparing social interaction with sophistication of thought.

“Our primary finding is that cohesive networks result in lower-quality thinking,” they write. “Conversely, those who have occasional contact with, and loose attachment to, people with whom they talk about politics have richer and more causal thinking on energy policy.”

“It seems that the feelings of strong attachment to one’s network members are associated with those traits that underlie low-quality political thinking,” they conclude.

At first glance, this seems fairly self-evident: If you regularly hang out with close friends who all share certain assumptions, it eventually becomes difficult to articulate the reasoning that led you to those common beliefs. But these findings suggest the problem goes deeper than that.

“Close-knit social networks generate low-quality reasoning regardless of the network’s level of political sophistication, or the existence of a variety of political views in the network,” the researchers write.

They found that even if one’s group contains people with differing opinions, “when it comes to providing a variety of rationales on an issue, repeated exposure to close contacts—hence, to their views and cognitive styles—limits the richness of one’s thoughts.”

The researchers consider this particularly problematic, given that long-term trends such as “suburban sprawl” tend to limit encounters with casual acquaintances and make “citizens more dependent upon their close-knit groups.”

So if you find your election-related discussions devolving into sound bites, perhaps the news media isn’t entirely to blame. If you want to keep your thinking sharp—and thereby entertain the possibility of changing your mind—perhaps the answer is to have a substantive talk with someone you don’t know all that well.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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