When it comes to information, we have growing powers to filter out what we don't like. Suppliers have also growing powers to cater to our demand without us having to make any conscious choices. This is worrisome since we might end up living in different political universes; or "echo chambers," as Cass Sunstein puts it in his latest book #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.
In this week's edition of EconTalk, host Russ Roberts and Sunstein discuss the main themes of the book. Why are echo chambers problematic? Because they prevent us from facing views dissimilar to ours. As a result, we could be led to take falsehoods for truths, become more extreme in our views, and regard others as enemies or adversaries. Part of the value of the right of free speech is that it creates an environment in which our own views are constantly challenged. Sunstein's worry is that this value could be greatly reduced, even when all the legal guarantees of free speech are observed.
That is because echo chambers are simply by-products of our individual decisions as consumers. This very fact imposes constraints in terms of the solutions we can call for, as Sunstein recognizes. To counteract the market architecture of increasing powers to filter out information, Sunstein suggests an "architecture of serendipity". He argues we need to increase the likelihood of getting exposed to views and materials that we have not sought out.
An issue that doesn't come up in Sunstein's and Roberts's conversation is the connection between echo chambers and the more general problem of motivated reasoning. Echo chambers are a manifestation of this problem, but there are many others. In some of those cases, perhaps the government does have a more active role to play.
We tend to derive important psychological benefits from belonging to groups and holding the shared views of their members. In the podcast episode, Sunstein recalls how in the very early days of behavioral economics the psychological benefits of being part of the group of people advancing this new paradigm were quite palpable. For many people, the benefits of belonging to distinct political groups are equally palpable. In order to maximize those psychological benefits, experimental research shows that we tend to engage in motivated reasoning; that is, our judgements dictate how we process and integrate information rather than the other way around.
The very fact that we often seek confirmatory evidence seems to indicate, however, that we also care about being right. Motivated reasoning would be a waste of time and effort if the need for accuracy were not also part of our psychological make-up. Motivated reasoning is thus a strategy to keep high cognitive dissonance costs at bay. This all suggests that there is a limit to what our self-deception capabilities can accomplish.
The benefits we derive from holding our most cherished beliefs start to dissipate quickly in the presence of growing doubts. Echo chambers protect us from doubt, and thus they help us to keep the costs of motivated reasoning low. We simply don't face the sort of evidence that could truly challenge the powers of our reasoning- or at least we don't face it often enough. Certain aspects of our institutional democratic architecture seem to play a functionally equivalent role: they lower the costs of our motivated reasoning by making it harder to confront potentially inconvenient evidence.
The main mechanism by which institutional structures have this effect is by lowering the salience of the costs and consequences of alternative policies. Echo chambers protect our self-image by keeping some information out of our field of vision. Low-salience costs do it by making that information invisible to our imperfect eyes. In both cases, the architecture of our environments enables us to reach the judgements we want rather easily. In particular, both echo chambers and low-salience costs might allow us to bypass the psychological demands of trade-off reasoning, which include cognitive effort, emotional dissonance, and moral angst. This is important to fully capture the benefits of group belonging. Strong, enthusiastic commitment to any set of shared political views is usually incompatible, in a psychological sense, with acknowledging that such policies could impose large burdens on ourselves and others.
Part of the problem is due to the very complexity of certain policy issues. The outcomes of most policies are typically experienced in the long term, unevenly, and the complexity of the issues involved makes it difficult to allocate clear responsibilities. Under those conditions, the costs of motivated reasoning might be as low as those we face in our echo chambers. Yet another part of the problem is how difficult we make it for citizens to understand potentially relevant information.
In markets where providers have no incentive to correct consumers' biases, disclosure mandates are one of the common policies to protect consumers and minimize negative social consequences. Would it be desirable to distribute policy disclosures to citizens stating, for example, the expected consequences of increasing the minimum wage, cutting or raising taxes, or erecting trade barriers as calculated by a non-partisan agency? Could these disclosures force politicians to adjust their claims regarding the benefits and costs of their proposed policies?
If the downsides of policy disclosures are more important than the upsides, would it be desirable to distribute at least a notice of public debt to taxpayers, containing both the deficit and the extent of the public debt for the current year as well as projections for the coming years? Would this notice be simply ignored in the same way we ignore the voices outside our echo chambers? Possibly. Why not then make such a note serve as a bill for the interest due on the public debt, disjoining it from the other budget expenditure categories paid by individuals' income taxes? In thinking how to overcome the challenges of echo chambers, Sunstein highlights the need to capture people's attention, not by coercing them, but by triggering their interest in material that might produce individual and social benefits. Few things would trigger people's attention more effectively than making them reach for their wallets. The same considerations could thus also support the elimination of tax withholding, and the distribution of itemized tax bills.
We care about belonging, but we also care about being right. This is why it makes sense to try to permeate all our echo chambers with alternative views. The hope is to increase the cost of our tendency to manipulate and interpret information to suit our own psychological needs. This is also why it makes sense to increase the salience of the costs and consequences of our political views.
Nicolás Maloberti is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund. His research interests include the implications of behavioral economics for the libertarian case for a minimal state.