Why ignoring your friends might be the key to election night trust
Sometimes the wisdom of the crowd isn't so wise
Will you believe the official result of the 2020 presidential election? The answer may be affected by how you hear about it and whether other people have the opportunity to influence you as you reach your conclusion.
We American individualists like to think of ourselves as discerning consumers of political information, independent thinkers who sift through competing perspectives to discover the truth, free of others' influence. This is not true. The reality is we're deeply influenced by each other, whether at a distance, via media consumption, or directly, via our personal relationships. Not only does the information we receive shape our views, but so do the means, messenger, and even sequence in which that receipt happens.
In fact, the effects our social networks (not just online, but in a more inclusive sense encompassing real life ties) have on our beliefs and behaviors are remarkable and often unintuitive. They're the subject of a book I'm reading right now, coauthored by Yale sociologist and medical doctor Nicholas Christakis and University of California, San Diego political scientist James H. Fowler. It's called Connected: How Your Friends' Friends' Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do, and that subtitle is only barely an overstatement.
Christakis and Fowler present exhaustive research on the web of relationships we all inhabit. The choices of people several relational jumps away from us — those friends' friends' friends — can have striking influence on our own choices without our realizing it. Habits like exercise or heavy drinking can spread through social networks much like communicable disease. Badly framed press coverage of suicides can correlate to spikes in suicide attempts. We often find new jobs or romantic partners from the outer reaches of our networks — an acquaintance or old coworker casually suggests a connection, and the course of multiple lives is changed.
One particular passage of Connected jumped out at me in my present election-addled state. It's not in the politics chapter, as you might expect. It came from a story about an ox.
"So there's a very famous story of a paper published in the journal Nature a hundred years ago by one of the founders of modern statistics," Christakis told me in a phone interview. "His name was Francis Galton, and he was at a fair in England where people had to guess the weight of the ox, and if you guessed correctly, you would get the ox or some prize. The guesses were all over the place. Let's say the ox weighed 2,150 pounds, but the guesses ranged from 1,035 pounds to 3,000 pounds or 4,000 pounds. What Galton noticed was that if you averaged all the weights of all the guesses, the average guess was almost exactly the weight of the ox."
The same is true, Christakis said, with other guesses of unknowns, like the more familiar version of this game where we guess the number of M&Ms in a jar: Individual guesses aren't great, but at a collective level, we get quite close to reality. "People's errors are random," Christakis summarized, "but the sense of the thing is not random. The noise cancels out, and the signal rises up."
That's how it works when we all make our guesses independently. But suppose each person announced their guess about the ox as they make it, or the creator of the M&M game posts his own guess publicly next to the jar. "Then we lead each other astray," Christakis told me. As he and Fowler write in Connected, "Whether groups of people are able to reach a correct decision about something ... depends on whether decisions are made at the same time or sequentially."
Galton's 1907 Nature article was explicitly presented as research done with an eye toward weightier matters. "In these democratic days," his began, "any investigation into the trustworthiness and peculiarities of popular judgments is of interest." Indeed it is. There are several applications of the lesson of the ox to politics, Christakis told me. The one that interested me is what it could mean for public reception of this year's election outcome.
Whether we find the result trustworthy will be influenced by what other people say about it. That's a given, so this analogy only goes so far. We can't make our judgments without hearing others' guesses, as is possible in the ox game. We've been talking about the election for months. We're following media sources giving us starkly different pictures of reality, and the high rate of early voting this year means we know more than usual how others are choosing. The only way to approximate the zero-influence scenario with the ox would be to have the states coordinate a single, simultaneous release of their final election results — one big information dump rather than the standard practice of trickling out data precinct by precinct with a steady stream of cable commentary.
That won't happen, but there are smaller steps we can take to, as Christakis put it, "reduce echo chambers," avoid being "whipped into a frenzy," and help people "process the information and come to conclusions about its veracity without necessarily being reinforced by others, which can reinforce the more extreme position." At the institutional level, he pointed to Twitter's plan to change several functions of their site between October 20 and November 6 (or beyond) to encourage more thoughtful engagement with content instead of rapid, bulk liking and sharing without scrutiny of substance. (These changes should be permanent and would be if Twitter valued a functional polity over site growth.)
At a personal level, we could all benefit from remembering our own ignorance — that our individual guess about the ox or the election is very possibly flawed, and that updating it with the opinions of our friends and follows may make it worse. We should share content cautiously and only if we have good reason to trust it, remembering that we are each a source of influence as much as its recipient. The task at hand is to remain reachable by correction and persuasion, fact and truth.