Some have stated that the 2016 election has been the most polarizing political event in modern American history. Empirically, the country has become more and more bipartisan, with people who were previously moderate more consistently ascribing to either the Republican or Democrat party in both casting their ballots and developing their world view.

Forgive the tautology, but I think it is fairly safe to argue that both radical conservatism and radical liberalism are, well, radical. This leads us to the question of how people radicalize. In a fascinating simulation study by Jager and Amblard (2004), they showed that it is increased contact (especially when it is slow and progressive) with individuals that are just slightly more polarized than you are what leads to shifts in population-wide extreme beliefs, especially when ego-involvement is high and non-committement (apathy) is low. According to their model, this is on the timescale of months or years, but can happen even when even a very small minority of the population holds extreme views. I think it is fair to say that in the U.S., we probably have over 10% of conservatives and 10% of liberals that hold an extreme ideology related to their political orientation.

Furthermore, the internet has only exacerbated the human tendency to associate with like-minded individuals, by providing elements like politically-slanted news outlets, Facebook pages that re-post certain stories but not others, and the option to “not follow” those who believe differently (7% of Facebook Users Defriended Someone Due to 2016 Election). Repeated contact with like-minded individuals creates a sort of echo-chamber (also called groupthink in social psychology), where stories are sorted and aggregated to form a larger narrative. The more stories collected the stronger the narrative gets. The more extreme the story, the better.

For me, this election culminated into a “tale of a thousand stories”, where the political discourse from both sides was fueled by the narrative-consistent stories propagated in these online echo-chambers. Sometimes the same facts were used, but interpreted differently. Other times, different sets of facts were pitted against each other. And ultimately, when there was not a timely narrative-consistent story readily available, stories were intentionally fabricated to keep the narrative alive and well. It also ensured that the narrative-holders happy and confident with their beliefs. This last one is perhaps the most disturbing. We all saw (bogus) headlines like “An FBI agent suspected in Clinton’s email leaks found dead in an apparent murder-suicide” or “Donald Trump was born in Pakistan”, and the line between a reliable news report and partisan propaganda became dangerously thin.

Another investigation that compared the Facebook feeds of people who leaned right and those who leaned left (Blue Feed, Red Feed.) The text, websites, news clippings, and videos were radically different. The stories shared reflected the overall narrative that one ascribed to rather than a mixed portion of narrative-consistent and narrative-inconsistent information that more likely reflects a more accurate picture of reality. Information is power. And people will fight for control of that information.

This year’s “Tale of a Thousand Stories” was more of an information war that pitted stories, facts, and ultimately people against each other. Being exposed to only certain stories that are consistent with the narratives that we hold, leave us unable to communicate with those who hold a different set of stories. I lean left, and I remember being so surprised watching a television interview (on Fox News) where a Michigan farmer shared how he felt ignored and neglected by the current administration, which was taking the country in a direction that did not reflect his small-town values. I was more than ready to have a conversation about social justice or racism, but I was completely unprepared to talk about the experience of living in the countryside and feeling ignored and voiceless.

Given the discourse that I hear between opposing narrative-holders, it seems like we have forgotten how to listen. In my next few posts, I would like to discuss how to improve listening by

  1. “Unplugging” from our own stories
  2. Finding at least three things to agree with in an opposing story
  3. Inviting someone to share your story with you

I believe that the United States truly is better together, and for that we will all need to lend a listening ear to our neighbor.

I will also discuss (1.) scientific ways to evaluate stories, as well as (2.) “when a story is not just a story”–referring to the violence some stories inspire (on both sides).

Please stay-tuned.