Know what I mean?

by David Moss

September 2009


Only 13 short months ago, we were all enjoying our little adult evening class in social psychology and behavioural economics. You remember – anchoring, framing, cognitive dissonance, ...

Maybe you don’t remember. But just because you’ve forgotten, doesn’t mean it’s gone away. There it was on the steam radio this week, with Daniel Finkelstein explaining how the government could persuade us to be good by the application of the laws of social psychology. Matthew Taylor of the RSA even started mulling over the possibility of “people-shaping”.

It’s all a bit creepy. More so if Mr Finkelstein is right, and David Cameron believes this nonsense.

President Obama appears to believe it. He has just made Cass Sunstein director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Professor Sunstein is one of the authors of last year’s Nudge book.

He’s got a new book out now, Going to Extremes. It’s all about group polarisation:

“Groups go to extremes. More precisely, members of a deliberating group usually end up at a more extreme position, in the same general direction as their inclinations before deliberation began.”

The professor provides an example from a study he conducted in Colorado. He divided a panel of Americans into two groups based on their views, liberal and conservative. Then he sought their opinion, individually, on a range of political questions. He asked, for instance, their view on allowing same-sex civil unions, and what they thought of an international treaty on climate change. He then let the two groups have separate meetings to discuss the issues. When the meetings were concluded, Professor Sunstein surveyed the members again.

He found that almost every member of either group ended up with a stronger, more extreme, position after they spoke with one another. The liberals became more passionately liberal, the conservatives more conservative.

If you think extremes are a bad place to go, the implication would seem to be that you should never let like-minded people talk to each other. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is presumably a meeting-free zone. That’s a novel departure for government – WIBBI* no-one ever met?


* wouldn't it be better if

David Moss has spent six years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme.

2009 Business Consultancy Services Ltd
on behalf of Dematerialised ID Ltd