Polarization, heuristics, and the 24 hour news cycle

Skeptics of the democratic ideal of self governance often point to the almost laughable impracticality of the vision. People are simply bad at being knowledgeable and making well-informed judgements.

Notably, this concern needn’t inherently be a slight. While the most elitist of skeptics will judgmentally decry the dreadful specter of “the masses” for perceived failings of willful ignorance or stupidity, some scholars offer a more nuanced view.

Consider, for example, the post-WWI writing of journalist Walter Lippmann. While his rhetorical flourishes reasonably earned him a reputation as an elitist and a technocrat, the full thread of his argument is much more subtle.

Lippmann – who had been intimately acquainted with propaganda efforts during the war – was notoriously concerned about giving too much power to “the public;” that “uninformed, sporadic mass of men” who will “arrive in the middle of the third act and will leave before the last curtain, having stayed just long enough perhaps to decide who is the hero and who the villain of the piece.”

But despite the colorful imagery, his argument wasn’t that the vast mass of men were too lazy or stupid to be entrusted with the vital task of democracy. Rather, his argument was simply that  no single person could ever have the capacity to be all-knowledgeable on all things.

There is just too much.

Reasonably lacking in the time to perfectly master all of human knowledge, every single person is left to make the best decisions they can by drawing heavily from existing knowledge, perceptions, and instincts.

Lippmann, incidentally, coined the word “stereotype” to describe the phenomenon.

As social psychologists will tell you, “stereotyping” is not inherently bad. As beings constantly bombarded by information, we literally couldn’t function if we constantly had to reconstruct our basic understanding of everyday objects and encounters. We couldn’t live without heuristics.

But, they can also become problematic if we become too rooted in our thinking, if we don’t have or take the time to periodically push past our heuristics.

Political polarization is just one example of this. It is too easy, too easy, to heuristically label people who agree with you as “good” and people who disagree with you as “bad.” A mild version of this may be helpful in some cases of electoral politics – knowing that a candidate of party X supports the political platform I generally support is arguably meaningful information. But it most certainly becomes problematic when this heuristic labeling seeps into our every day life and every day encounters.

Markus Prior argues that polarization is an outcome of an increasingly efficient media environment. When people aren’t all “accidentally” exposed to the same evening news – as they were when the evening news was literally the only thing on TV – people tend to self-select into separate, biased news spheres.

Perhaps worse, they self-select out of news consumption all together. After all, there are far more enjoyable things to watch than the constant depressing drudgery of current events.

This causes a perfect storm for polarization – most people are generally uniformed, and when they peak their head up to get a sense of what’s going on, they make quick judgements inferred from a media outlet specially curated to cater to their existing beliefs.

There’s a reasonable amount of psychological and political literature to reinforce this story, but, I think, we lose something if we forget the Lippmann view.

The problem, Lippmann would argue, is not the stereotypes themselves, it’s the thoughtless and broad application of them which results from not having enough time to do otherwise.

In other words, while the wide variety of media options may lend themselves to polarization, the constant, 24-hour avalanche of news coverage is perhaps a bigger problem. It is literally impossible to keep up, to take it all in and study every issue in a thoughtful, non-biased way.

In the absence of time for such activity, and buried in our own personal pressures of work of and life, we adapt as best we can by making quick, vaguely informed decisions motivated largely by our pre-existing beliefs.

It’s not that “the public” can’t be trusted, Lippmann would argue, it’s that we all put too much faith in our own ability to rise above such challenges. It is always “other people” who are politically foolish. We – and the people we agree with – are, of course, more enlightened.

As if anyone has the ability to keep up with all the news.



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