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Faye Flam: He seemed like a good source, until I found out he was a Democrat

September 17, 2018

Albert Einstein once said: “The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self.” Easier said than done! Luckily social science has pointed to a less steep path: liberation from political labels.

Humans are by nature social learners. We know how to tap into the wisdom of the crowd, when, for example, we’re given the opportunity to poll the audience on a game show.

Last week, an intriguing new study showed that people naturally tapped into crowd wisdom to improve their ability to interpret a climate-related graph — but their ability to learn was ruined by the mere suggestion of political labeling.

In that study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers asked several thousand people who had identified as a Democrat or a Republican to forecast the future using a NASA graph tracking the amount of Arctic sea ice.

The graph seesawed up and down, with an obvious downward trend, though the final seesaw moved things slightly upward.

Study author Damon Centola of the University of Pennsylvania said that Republicans were more likely than Democrats to fall for so-called endpoint bias — the often erroneous assumption that the noise at the tail end was more important in predicting the trend than the long-term data.

That happened to 40 percent of the Republicans but less than 30 percent of the Democrats.

Participants got a lot smarter when they could see the answers of 40 other people assigned to the same task. After consulting with the wisdom of the crowd, 85 percent of Republicans got the trend right — slightly outperforming the Democrats.

But that changed once the researchers started adding the Republican or Democratic logos to the bottom of the participant’s screens in a way that suggested these labels would apply to their erstwhile collaborators. Then nobody learned anything.

Centola said it’s possible that this political label effect could help explain studies showing that exposure to opposing view increases rather than decreases polarization. One such study was published late last month, also in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

With labels often comes dismissal.

It’s easier for some people to brush off a useful or even brilliant idea if it’s perceived as coming from a sanctimonious liberal or a stodgy conservative, a member of the elite, or a person without sufficient education. If only we could attain liberation from the self and its biases.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.

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