Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.