Voting in an Echo Chamber: The Myth of the “Informed” Vote
“America was established to benefit from national diversity. The Founders believed that when people with diverging opinions hashed out their differences face-to-face, the country would be better off. Now that simply doesn’t happen — in Congress, in our legislatures, or between our increasingly isolated neighborhoods. We’ve replaced a belief in a nation with an oversized trust in ourselves and our carefully chosen surroundings.”
- Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart
Hunch users tend to be more politically active than the average American, and for that we applaud them. Voter turnout in the U.S. 2008 election totaled 63%, whereas 74% of Hunch users in North America reported voting in the last election.
More generally, roughly half of both liberal and conservative Hunch users report reading all the coverage, watching the debates, and weighing both sides of each issue before casting their political vote.
Sure, that’s what we’re all supposed to be doing. But could Hunch really be populated by such thoughtful citizens? Are we really open to exposing ourselves to new experiences, thoughtful discourse, and alternative points of view? Let’s raise our collective eyebrows and look at the data.
Faster than you can say “fair and balanced,” other user answers reveal that respondents are much more close-minded than they’d like to believe.
We’ve all heard of “preaching to the choir” (insert joke about separation of church and state here). Liberal and conservative Hunch users both identify more strongly with one party or the other and then seek out political media accordingly. A conservative Hunch user might report being well-informed, but he or she might just consume a plethora of right-wing media and political commentary. The same goes for liberals. Drinking the Kool-Aid in a variety of slightly different flavors does not make one well-rounded.
Not only are we consuming the same batch of Kool-Aid that appeals to our existing political beliefs — it seems we don’t think it’s Kool-Aid at all. Take this question about whether Fox News Network is biased or not:
We’re not here to weigh in on that debate, other than to note this observation: Among those who say the network is flat-out biased, 77% are liberal. Among those who say it isn’t, they’re 67% conservative.
When media from the opposing side expresses primarily one point of view, we tend to dismiss the source as biased. When media from our side does the same thing, however, we consider it valid. Then we continue consuming it, and it reinforces beliefs we already hold.
But forget political pundits and the myriad media soapboxes. Remember that saying about birds of a feather flocking together? Well, it’s true — whether these birds are left-wing or right-wing. For the most part, we insulate ourselves from people who aren’t like us. It makes sense that we’d choose to spend most of our time with people who share our beliefs and values. It also speaks to the ease of going with the crowd, even when we do it unconsciously.
Exposure to many different types of people and experiences leads to different points of view. It also reinforces empathy (not to be confused with sympathy), which definitely affects how we vote. About 4 in 10 Hunch users, no matter what their primary political affiliation, admit that they don’t regularly socialize with people outside of their own socioeconomic group. We’re not political analysts, but it seems that this would make it tougher to consider the specific concerns and issues faced by people different from ourselves.
Similarly, one of the best ways to predict someone’s attitudes toward either gay marriage or gays in the military is to find out if they have any friends who are gay:
* Those with no gay or lesbian friends are twice as likely to be against full military inclusion of gay personnel
* Those with no gay or lesbian friends are much more likely to be against gay marriage
What’s foreign can be scary to us. Our opinions about racial profiling are strongly influenced by our world view and cultural experiences. Specifically, Hunch users who speak only one language are 75% more likely to believe that racial profiling keeps airports safer.
But even if you don’t speak more than one language, if you grew up in a culturally-diverse area, you’re also more likely to be accepting of different types of people.
If you’re going to be really informed about the world, it helps to travel. Yet many of us stick close to home. Between 20 and 32% of all Hunch users have never been outside their own country. In a smaller, more extreme group like The Tea Party, that number rises to 40%. If you’ve been paying attention, you may have put together an ironic puzzle: Many people who don’t regularly travel maintain that they feel safer in racially-profiled airports.
On the flip side, many of us have friends and family members with different views. We don’t recommend talking about politics over the dinner table, per se, but many friends don’t talk about it at all. More than a third of Hunch users admit to simply dropping a discussion with a friend (“Who needs the aggravation?”) when points of view are diverging. Is shutting down discourse really the way to best understand all sides of an issue?
More concerning is the fact that the percentage rises to 45% among those who report voting based on something other than amassing all the facts. Many people who go with their gut like to stick to their decision and shun contrarian points of view. And they admit it!
Volunteering is a way to connect with others, learn about a cause, broaden our exposure to world issues and give back all at the same time. A tip of the hat to conservatives, who are more likely than liberals to donate both their time and their money to others. Still, only about a third of all Hunch users say they regularly volunteer.
Hunch users who believe that two random people are more different than alike are also less likely to have even partially read the religious text of a religion they don’t practice. Those who have read such a text in its entirety are 38% more likely to believe that people are more alike than different. The takeaway? Maybe expanding our world and religious views can help us find the commonalities among us all. It could also raise a new chicken-egg question: Which came first, the open-mindedness or the open mind? People willing to read religious texts they don’t subscribe to might already approach the world more inclusively.
We don’t mean to pick on any one group in this pre-election blog post. Liberals and conservatives alike are both guilty of shouting — or listening to others shout — into the echo chamber and confusing that with an actual dialogue.
Keep in mind that this research was, by definition, conducted among users of Hunch. Hunch’s global audience is large (about 600K registered and active users) and growing, but it does currently tend to skew somewhat more liberal, younger, more educated and towards earlier adopters than the population at large. In other words, it skews towards the very types of people who you would think would be especially open to outside ideas and a global view. So the fact that we saw so many red flags in this data, among this set of respondents, is telling. It suggests that general populations likely exhibit these traits to an even greater extent.
Exploration is the key to getting outside the comfort zone of the beliefs we already hold. Hunch endeavors to connect users to new things they haven’t already tried, but would probably like. Several upcoming site features will take this a step further, recommending things you might not even know to look for. After all, every friend starts out a stranger. Everyone’s favorite food, song, or book originates as a strange combination of untested ingredients.
We hope these Hunch findings inspire you to keep your eyes and ears open and make thoughtful political decisions on Election Day and in the future.