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Sept. 16, 2021, 2:02 p.m.
Audience & Social

This study shows how people reason their way through echo chambers — and what might guide them out

“You really don’t know whether this person making a good-sounding argument is really smart, is really educated, or whether they’re just reading off something that they read on Twitter.”

Preaching to the choir, shouting in an echo chamber — whatever your preferred metaphor is, a study published earlier this week in the Journal of the European Economic Association sheds some light on what may be happening when people are surrounded by others with like-minded views — and especially when they have a tough time gauging whether the information being presented within the chamber is accurate.

The researchers behind the study, who are economists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, conducted an experiment among 220 college students. The underlying concept driving the study was this idea of motivated belief — where a person believes something because they want it to be true, not necessarily because that belief is supported by facts or other evidence.

This kind of reasoning often plays out in the political realm, where underlying biases or wanting a particular outcome could cause people to hold onto beliefs that are factually inaccurate. A simpler example might be how fans of competing sports teams can have wildly different takes on a referee’s call, because each fan wants their respective team to win.

In the news context, there are plenty of reasons why knowing how people operate in echo chambers is important. But for the purpose of the experiment, the researchers used IQ scores, which are subject to the natural bias and motivated belief that people want to believe themselves smarter than they perhaps are. Participants took an IQ test and were then told they were either in the high IQ group or a lower IQ group, and were asked — using sliders on a computer screen — to gauge the probability that they were in the high group. There was a literal payoff in the form of a monetary prize for ultimately being correct about the group they were in. Optimistic people were more likely to slide that scale higher than their pessimistic counterparts.

Participants were then paired and told that their partner was in the same IQ group, just not which group. Partners were also allowed to see each other’s sliders to use each other’s scales to adjust their own perceptions of being in a given IQ group. This is when things got interesting: As a whole, the optimistic people were likely to influence the pessimists to become more optimistic. In other words, if someone had their slider at an 85% change of being in the high IQ group, and their partner only marked down a 55% chance, this latter person tended to slide more toward the 85% end.

“The basic argument we make based on lots of little pieces of evidence in the data is that when you’re in an echo chamber, you don’t really know how accurate the other person’s beliefs are,” said Ryan Oprea, the Maxwell C. and Mary Pellish Chair of Economics at UCSB.

“You really don’t know whether this person making a good-sounding argument is really smart, is really educated, or whether they’re just reading off something that they read on Twitter.” Without outside input or context of any kind, people in the chamber are left to their own devices to gauge the credibility of the other people, or in this case, the one other person, in the chamber with them.

The work found that when people are in this position and they have to decide how accurate someone else’s belief is, the motivated reasoning ends up being their guide. “If you’d like to believe it’s true, if you have no way to break the tie, you resolve this uncertainty by having a tendency to put more weight on the beliefs of people who agree with you. Or more generally, who are telling you the thing that you would like to be true,” Oprea said.

But something changed when a third step was added in. The paired participants were told a) which group they were in, and b) that there was a 70% chance that that information was correct. Participants once again had a chance to adjust their sliders based on this new information. This time, the more pessimistic person within the pair was not as influenced by their partner.

“What happens when we give people that information is that they listen to it,” Oprea said. With some exceptions, “All of this echo chamber stuff in the experiment, most of it seems to disappear.” In other words, when people lose the scope to have to assign their own accuracy, people also lose the tendency to want to respond to information through motivated reasoning.

Ultimately, motivated beliefs are what gain a foothold when there is wiggle room in people’s ability to try and make sense of information without context. So, losing that wiggle room would be key.

What does that mean for those of us in the news business? Finding that Holy Grail of an unbiased news source, one that can provide that signal to readers that the information presented can be trustworthy, is a worthy, albeit unlikely, goal.

Perhaps more realistically, what the media landscape likely needs is a reintroduction of signals, like when study subjects were told which group they’re in and the likelihood that that information was 70% correct. The erosion of public trust in media over the past few decades has meant that people don’t have those public signals anymore, signals that they can instinctively trust to be true and unbiased.

What might a public signal like that that look like in today’s biased landscape? If there were a way to objectively quantify a news outlet or newsperson’s track record with accuracy, that might be a start, Oprea said.

At least based on what this experiment showed, “If, when someone in an online forum or Twitter is making a big claim, you had some indication about how often that person was wrong or full of it, in principle that would reduce the motivation for them to have this [motivated] bias.”

So, if anyone is game to build such a system, let us know. We’re all ears.

Illustration by Prachatai used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 16, 2021, 2:02 p.m.
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