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« SocialGrid: Much, much crazier than I thought | Main | Tom Coates on Wikis as Content Management Tools »

January 10, 2004

Cass Sunstein on the echo chamber

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Posted by Clay Shirky

Cass Sunstein piece on NASA's culture and the stifling of dissent, which may have ramifications for the weblog world.
My research shows that on a three-judge panel, a Republican-appointed judge is often far more likely to vote conservatively when sitting with two other Republican appointees than when sitting with at least one Democratic appointee. The same is true for Democratic judges, whose liberal tendencies are dramatically amplified when they sit on all-Democratic panels. Without knowing it, the Columbia investigators were identifying a pervasive social problem, one that unites these examples and that leads to many failures in the public and private sectors. In military circles, this process is called "incestuous amplification." Among psychologists, it is known as "group polarization." In a nutshell: Like-minded people, talking only with one another, usually end up believing a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk.

Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. Kevin Miller on January 10, 2004 1:12 PM writes...

This phenomenon is even more general than these two examples. Kevin Dunbar, now at Dartmouth ( has done some really fascinating research on scientific research groups, where the same effect definitely holds. Research groups made of scientists from the same discipline and background have very efficient meetings but don't make as much progress as more diverse groups, who have more contentious meetings and spend more time explaining the obvious to each other and discovering that it's not quite as obvious as they thought it was. (his papers are online here:, or just read this:

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2. Matt on January 10, 2004 7:47 PM writes...

Kinda puts a damper on the "revolution" of Meetups, Presidential Candidate community blogs, and the whole political blogging arena, doesn't it?

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3. Lucas on January 11, 2004 12:44 AM writes...

The problem of false consensus is related to the mechanism of consensus formation, and not to the level of group homogeneity. If the mechanism is one based on power politics (mutual admiration societies) then homogeneity only exacerbates the tendency to false consensus.

However if the mechanism is one that does not utilize flattery and marginalization as tools (and let's be honest, most do) then homogeneity is not a danger but a catalyst.

The problem of social software is one of awarding members whose intentionality aligns with that of finding the best solution without utilizing mechanisms of political reward.

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4. Martin Roell on January 14, 2004 7:47 AM writes...

Rebecca Blood talked about Echo Chambers and the Blogosphere at last year's BlogTalk.

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