Facts About Minority Opinion vs. Majority Rule

Do the vast majority of people truly disagree with one another?

Posted Jul 30, 2018

fNau/Flickr
Source: fNau/Flickr

Politics are more polarized than ever. But most of us are not political extremists.

According to a May 2018 Gallup poll, 43% of Americans consider themselves “Independents” while 26% and 29% consider themselves Republicans and Democrats, respectively. Where does the illusion of extremism come from?

We should be skeptical that people truly believe every position they express, especially in public settings.

Do the vast majority of people truly disagree with one another or are they just conforming for fear of the social consequences?

One important idea for understanding social behavior and conformity is preference falsification. This concept was developed by the economist Timur Kuran.

In short, preference falsification means to express beliefs you don’t actually hold in order to fit into a social group. It can be uncomfortable to disagree with others. Especially with those who you consider to be coalitional or political allies.

Still, why do most of us who are more moderate in our beliefs allow those who are more extreme to dominate the political scene?

To answer this, we need to explore why we falsify our preferences to bend to the preferences of the extreme minority, rather than the extreme minority bending to the preferences of the moderate majority.

Partisans run the show. Being closed-minded can sometimes pay off. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of “Skin in the Game,” describes how this works in an essay titled “The Most Intolerant Wins.” He gives a simple example: The widespread use of automatic cars.

Manual drivers can drive automatic cars, but the reverse isn’t always true. Thus, the flexible manual drivers live in a society ruled by those who can only drive stick shift.

Or consider a person who can speak English and Korean attempting to communicate with someone who speaks only English. Both people will have to speak English as a consequence of the monolingual person’s restricted language abilities.

The person capable of many things is constricted by the person capable of one thing. The flexible polyglot has to adapt to the inflexible monoglot.

Committed extremists are unlikely to move toward the middle. Committed people lack versatility. But flexible voters who are open to new ideas are more likely to move toward extremes.

Those who can go either way can adopt the preferences of the minority. If one person is absolutely committed to an idea, and a second person finds merit in the idea but is uncertain, the first individual will be more likely to impose her view.

If one group is absolutely committed to an idea and unwilling to consider other ideas, and another group is less committed to an opposing idea and is willing to consider other ideas, the first group often wins. The flexible group often loses. It can pay to be inflexible.

Additionally, researchers have used mathematical modeling to demonstrate that there is a tipping point for when opinions held by a committed minority spread through the rest of a population.

The tipping point is 10%. According to scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority. Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”

If 90% of us are uncommitted, and 10% are committed, it’s only a matter of time before we match our opinions with the much smaller group.

Group polarization

But polarization doesn’t just come from the inflexibility of a small group with strongly held beliefs. Sometimes a large group holding weakly held beliefs can generate polarization, too.

A group of likeminded people interacting with one another can reinforce one another’s tentative viewpoints. Such weak consensus then strengthens of the opinions of each person in the group.

In a study by psychologists Serge Moscovici and Marisa Zavalloni, they asked people their opinion of the French president. Next, the researchers asked about their attitudes about Americans. Then the researchers then asked the participants to discuss each topic as a group.

Discussion led to groups becoming more extreme in their opinions. For example, participants held slightly favorable attitudes toward the French president. But their attitudes magnified as they interacted with each other. And they held slightly negative attitudes toward Americans.

But their negative attitudes intensified as each member learned others shared their views. The researchers concluded, “Group consensus seems to induce a change of attitudes in which subjects are likely to adopt more extreme positions." When we see our uncertain opinions reflected back to us, our beliefs strengthen.

And we tend to enjoy being with those who share our beliefs. In another experiment, researchers invited people to discuss issues including same sex marriage, affirmative action, and climate change. People in one group were predominantly liberal.

People in another group were mostly conservative. Discussions on controversial topics led to individuals expressing increased belief in their positions compared to before the discussions. Beliefs we hold are strengthened when we are around others who hold similar views.

The Abilene Paradox

Agreement can be dangerous. It can lead to all of us doing something none of us wanted.

Imagine a group of people trying to decide what to have for dinner. One person suggests driving to a restaurant in a distant city called Abilene. Another person, who doesn’t want to travel very far but doesn’t want to argue, says sure. A third individual, who now thinks two people want to go to Abilene, doesn’t want to be the odd person out. She agrees that Abilene is a good idea. This domino effect leads to everyone thinking everyone else wants to go to Abilene, when in fact a consensus does not exist.

This is called The Abilene Paradox, described by management expert Jerry B. Harvey. It is similar to groupthink, but not exactly the same. The phenomenon of groupthink typically involves individuals who all agree with one another amplifying each other’s viewpoints.

But the Abilene Paradox is stranger.

It consists of individuals who do not agree with an idea yet acquiesce because of their mistaken perception of consensus among other individuals.

Imagine, if instead of a domino effect of mistaken consensus, one person had spoken up and said “Maybe Abilene. But does anyone else have suggestions?” This would save the group a long drive to a place most of them did not want to go.

If enough people are dishonest about what they really think, then many of us will begin to confuse polite but dishonest assent with reality. You and I might hold the same opinion on something. But if it dissents from the opinion that you and I believe the vast majority of people hold, then we will be less likely to express it.

We may simply think that everyone else holds a certain belief and thus we ourselves should express it. Meanwhile everyone else is thinking the same thing.

In a recent Wall Street Journal Notable & Quotable section, they share a story of a professor who signed a letter he disagreed with. He signed because he thought his colleagues would judge him if he was one of the only people who didn’t sign it. When asked why he thought other professors would sign it, he replied “Probably for the same reason I did.”

If the truth becomes unfashionable to express, then we will all operate under the assumption that everyone else holds opinions they do not actually believe. Though many of us don’t like to rock the boat unless we have to, sometimes dissent can save us from a trip to Abilene. Or worse.