In an article in The Chronicle Review, “The Polarization of Extremes,” Cass R. Sunstein examines a phenomenon that he calls enclave extremism: “When people end up in enclaves of like-minded people, they usually move toward a more extreme point in the direction to which the group’s members were originally inclined.” He cites a 2005 Colorado experiment that studied this phenomenon.
About 60 Americans were brought together and assembled into a number of groups, each consisting of five or six people. Members of each group were asked to deliberate on three of the most controversial issues of the day: Should states allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions? Should employers engage in affirmative action by giving a preference to members of traditionally disadvantaged groups? Should the United States sign an international treaty to combat global warming?
As the experiment was designed, the groups consisted of “liberal” and “conservative” enclaves — the former from Boulder, the latter from Colorado Springs. It is widely known that Boulder tends to be liberal, and Colorado Springs tends to be conservative. Participants were screened to ensure that they generally conformed to those stereotypes. People were asked to state their opinions anonymously both before and after 15 minutes of group discussion. What was the effect of that discussion?
In almost every case, people held more-extreme positions after they spoke with like-minded others. Discussion made civil unions more popular among liberals and less popular among conservatives. Liberals favored an international treaty to control global warming before discussion; they favored it far more strongly after discussion. Conservatives were neutral on that treaty before discussion, but they strongly opposed it after discussion. Liberals, mildly favorable toward affirmative action before discussion, became strongly favorable toward affirmative action after discussion. Firmly negative about affirmative action before discussion, conservatives became fiercely negative about affirmative action after discussion.
The creation of enclaves of like-minded people had a second effect: It made both liberal groups and conservative groups significantly more homogeneous — and thus squelched diversity. Before people started to talk, many groups displayed a fair amount of internal disagreement on the three issues. The disagreements were greatly reduced as a result of a mere 15-minute discussion. In their anonymous statements, group members showed far more consensus after discussion than before. The discussion greatly widened the rift between liberals and conservatives on all three issues.
As he later points out, enclave extremism is not inherently a bad thing. Rather like conviction, it all depends on what it’s about. For instance, he notes, “Increased extremism, fed by discussions among like-minded people, has helped fuel many movements of great value — including, for example, the civil-rights movement, the antislavery movement, the antigenocide movement, the attack on communism in Eastern Europe, and the movement for gender equality.” On the other hand, he also notes, enclave extremism can result in “the rise of Nazism, terrorism, and cults of various sorts.”