The internet has given Yale students more opportunities to consume political information and participate in politics. We receive emails about events occurring on campus, we are encouraged to sign online petitions, we follow our favorite organizations on Twitter, and we read news online. Now, more than ever before, students at Yale can easily find the political information they seek. How open-minded are we towards considering different perspectives?
I recently performed a study to see whether Yale students would discriminate against consuming online information that challenged their beliefs. Last Wednesday, April 4, I sent an email to 85 registered republican undergraduates and 85 registered democrat undergraduates. The email came from a fake organization called Yale Against Obamacare, and it encouraged recipients to click a link containing conservative political information from the Heritage Foundation about the negative economic impact of Obama’s health care plan.
I tracked the number of clicks on the link in the email. Seven republicans clicked the link (8.3% click rate), while no democrats did. The difference in clicks was statistically significant, meaning that the odds of these results occurring due to random chance are extremely small.
The results of my study suggest that republican Yalies are more likely than democrat Yalies to read political information online that affirms their preexisting beliefs. Based on this result, it seems likely that partisans at Yale prefer consuming information that affirms their beliefs.
Cass Sunstein and other political theorists worry that the internet provides people with more opportunities than ever before to consume political information that mirrors their beliefs. They argue that productive political deliberation is impossible without understanding of different perspectives. Political debates and discussions at Yale could become hostile and useless if students operate with different partisan information. A liberal arts education is supposed to expose students to new beliefs and challenge students to question their assumptions, but the internet could be making this harder by allowing students to view mostly the information they already believe.
This fear about ideological segregation online, though, rests on the simplistic and perhaps naive assumption that increasing peoples’ exposure to information from divergent political perspectives will improve the deliberation process. This may not be the case.
One problem is the confirmation bias. When reading opposing views, people tend to remember and agree with information that affirms their preconceived beliefs while ignoring information that contradicts their beliefs. Thus if a republican and a democrat read an article on the pros and cons of increasing corporate taxes, they will process and remember the information differently. Republicans will likely remember more cons, while democrats will likely remember more pros. The confirmation bias could reduce the benefits of acquiring information from different perspectives.
Other cognitive biases cause people to process opposing viewpoints in ways that could actually hinder deliberation. Stonybrook University Professors Charles Taber and Milton Lodge conducted a famous study that demonstrated that politically aware partisans are both closed-minded and defensive about their beliefs. When presented with a balanced set of pro and con arguments about partisan issues, partisans’ preexisting attitudes become even stronger. As an example, Taber and Lodge found that gun control opponents became even stronger opponents after reading information about the benefits of gun control. Yalies are very likely to exhibit these biases: Taber and Lodge found that these effects were the strongest in those most knowledgeable about politics.
Pew reports, academic studies, and my most recent study at Yale all attempt to measure what type of information partisans choose to consume. But perhaps this approach is too simple. Any strategy that rests only on finding ways to increase exposure to different views online could actually make deliberation more difficult. What really matters is people’s willingness to engage in rational reasoning rather than motivated reasoning. This problem has been largely ignored in the debate over ideological segregation online, and this is what needs to change if we want people to truly consider different perspectives.