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Real spaces, not digital ones, will fix our politics

By Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Programme Director, Media Lab Entrepreneurship; MIT – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. Opening speaker of the Alpbach Economic Symposium on August 29, 2017.

Polarisation and political fragmentation are increasing across the world. On both sides, extreme views are increasingly popular. These changes are visible in the social media sphere, too. There, fragmentation can be measured by identifying the political alignment of users and postings by how much they draw from familiar left-wing and right-wing sources and then looking at how ideas and facts are shared across the ideological divide. Facebook researchers have found that most of their users are quite polarised, and don’t have many Facebook friends with opposing political views. Politically aligned users of the site also share very little in the way of news or opinion with those of opposite persuasion.

In this way, social media makes it easier for users to develop a virtual peer community that supports unusual identity, beliefs, and behaviour, and for extreme views to find support. This changes how we form our sacred beliefs, which are those beliefs that include “core constructs of national and ethnic identities and moral norms.”1 Such beliefs are the basis of our social identity—regardless of whether we are right or left leaning—and so are hard to change. Brain studies, for instance,  have shown that we process these sorts of beliefs in a region of the brain that is separate from those regions that handle our normal rational way of thinking, and without particular regard for utility.As a consequence, sacred beliefs are resistant to logic or evidence, because to question them is to damage our peer group membership, and undermine the social benefits we receive from it. The result is a digital “echo chamber.”

Moreover, there is another dimension to our segregated society that we sometimes forget about: where we physically live, and whom we move past on a day-to-day basis. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the EU2020 report finds that the European physical world, too, is becoming increasingly segregated…rich life and work in different places that the poor, and so the two groups almost never meet and talk.

This is particularly problematic because our physical networks are a powerful influence on our beliefs.   When my research group studied young Americans we found that face-to-face social exposure features explained individual political opinions on Election Day better than self-reported social ties or the views of people with whom they had political discussions. The best predictor of subject attitudes was not their friends, parents, or political discussants, but rather the attitudes of the peers who shared the same physical environment.

We have recently shown similar results in Europe.  The voting behaviour of people who work in the same area and shop at the same stores is more uniform than those of a given age, gender, or socioeconomic status. Not only do we seek out environments that have people like us (birds of a feather really do flock together!), but we unconsciously pick up attitudes and beliefs from the people we identify as peers. When in Rome, we begin to do as the Romans do—often without even being conscious of it. This runs counter to the common assumption in economics that people are independent and autonomous. The evidence is that people’s beliefs and actions are overwhelmingly determined through social learning from peers, whether we know it or not.

So what would happen if the way we interacted with each other forced us to mix with people of different groups? If we didn’t allow ourselves to dive ever deeper into self-reinforcing groups? What would happen if we mixed primarily through that quaint and old- fashioned technique, namely moving about in our physical environment, encountering opinions and perspectives that we did not pre-select? Could we counter the devil’s brew of single-community media combined with physical segregation? My research at MIT strongly suggests that the answer is yes. In businesses, on the street, and in peer groups, ideas are shaped more by face-to-face interaction than by digital media.

For instance, we could take a different approach to city planning, one that targets mixing populations. The government could employ locals for its services, improve transportation between neighbourhoods, and create tax breaks for industries that employ locals. With enough mixing, the old factions, with their conflicting sacred beliefs, might fade away and a more productive community dialogue could emerge.

So the next time you get mad at a tweet, or are upset by a news item, turn off your computer or TV, get up, and go talk to someone. For real.