Polarization in Small Groups and in Politics

April 13, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

In class last week, I tried replicating the “risky shift” experiments that date back to the 1950s. Groups discussed problems that pitted caution against risk. For example, down by three points on the last play of a football game, should you kick a field goal and settle for a tie, or try a play that might win but also risks a loss?* In the original studies, not only were group decisions riskier than individual decisions, but discussion persuaded more people towards risk than towards caution.

Later research showed that the risky shift was one instance of a more general effect – group polarization: When members of a group share a value, and they discuss something related to that value, group opinion will shift further out towards the pole on that dimension.

I hadn’t thought that the concept had much use outside of small groups, but now I wonder if something similar happens in politics.  “North Carolina Shows Strains with G.O.P.” says today’s Times (here) on page one.
 the divisions that are gripping the party nationally are playing out powerfully, expensively and often very messily.  And after haunting losses in 2012 in which far-right Senate candidates prevailed in primaries only to collapse in the general election, the Republican establishment is determined to stifle the more radical challengers.
Those divisions were always there. As someone pointed out even in the victorious Bush years, the party was an uneasy coalition of The Predators (pro big business), The Taliban ( religious and cultural conservatives), and NeoCons (foreign policy hawks). Now add the more populist, libertarian Tea Party, who accuse the others of being RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).

Republican primaries are basically group discussions among those who share conservative values. As in the small-group studies, participants are aware that others are evaluating them on their positions, so they move towards the valued end of that dimension. Those already further out provide an anchor – or perhaps a magnet – to pull the others further in that direction.**

Other things being equal, we might expect positions to get more extreme of the course of the primary season.  But of course, other things are not equal.  The difference between group discussion and politics is that in the small group experiments, all participants had an equal ability to voice their ideas to the group. In politics, thanks to the Supremes, the question is not just what someone wants to say; it’s who has the money to have his message heard most frequently. 

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* In those days, college football had not overtime. The game ended after the fourth quarter.

** The question in the experiments asked, “What is the lowest probabiblity that you would accept in order to go for the win rather than the tie?”  The person who went in choosing a 5-in-10 option might have thought himself reasonably risky. But when he got in the group, he found that others would be willing to take a 3-in-10 or even 1-in-10 chance.  His original position no longer seemed so in tune with the tacit value on risk, and he might shift to a riskier alternative.

AKD 2014

April 8, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston
This year, twenty-four students joined AKD, the sociology honor society. 


David Aveta
Paul-Anthony Baez
Ian Callahan
Megan Catanzaro
Yajaira Cruz
Khadijah Davis
Chelsea Durocher
Ailiceth Espinal
Jacob Forman
Ariana Glogower
Dawn Gruschow
Lauren Heavner

Patrick Hughes
David Koubek
Jennifer Miller
Jessica Munoz
Kalie Norko
Kiersten Parks
Renee Pikowski
Rebecca Rodgers
Monica Rodriguez
Noel Rozier
Rey Sentina
Maria Vallejo

Our speaker was Karen Cerulo of Rutgers, who talked about her latest paper (co-written with Montclair’s Janet Ruane), “Confessions of the Rich and Famous.”*


“Big Brother is Watching You” quality of the background image is misleading. It’s we who are watching the public figures as they offer apologies, and how we judge them depends on the rhetorical strategy of the apology.  When the “Bridgegate” story broke, Governor Christie first mocked those who said his administration might have been involved. When he finally did apologize, he began with a sentence of apology to the people of New Jersey and Fort Lee. But his next sentence shifted the focus to himself : “I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team.”**

Bad strategy.

Apologies are built on different components – victim, offender, act, context. What distinguishes one apology from another is not just the selection of components but their sequential structure. We hear a different story depending on how the segments are arranged, as Cerulo/Ruane discovered when they looked at public opinion polls for estimates of which strategies were most effective.

The short answer is: apologize, don’t explain.  It’s about the victim, it’s not about you except for your mortification and remorse. Gov. Christie was claiming that he was the victim – his staff had “embarrassed and humiliated” him.  New Jerseyites did not care, just as basketball fans in Cleveland did not care if LeBron explained why moving to Miami was good for LeBron (“But I knew this opportunity was once in a lifetime.”)

This research was limited to celebrities, but you have to wonder if apologies among us mere mortals work the same way.

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*In introducing the speaker, it occurred to me that for many in the audience the title of the paper would have absolutely no ring of familiarity. 

** The sample of 183 celebrity apologies went only through 2012 and thus missed the Christie statement.

The End of Society as We Know It (or, as they knew it)

April 5, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the unit on social class, I sometimes show an excerpt from the 2001 PBS show “People Like Us: Social Class in America.”  Here’s a brief clip.



One semester, it dawned on me that for some of the words and images in this 35-second excerpt, my students haven’t a clue. 


“Those people on horses – does anyone know what that is?” Usually not. When I tell them, they are often incredulous that there could actually be such a thing as a fox hunt.  And it takes place only a twenty-minute drive from the Morristown Mall.


The man in the clip is identified as a “society columnist.” Few of my students have any idea what society here means.

The society columnist says the sometimes class is based on “if your mother came out at the Infirmary Ball in New York City.”  Coming out? Being presented to society at a debutante ball?  It might as well be a Kwakiutl potlatch.

The distance is not just one of class but of generation. These upper-class rituals seem to be going out of style. Even wealthier kids born in the 90s may find them an anachronism.  Do newspapers still have society columnists? When I Googled that phrase, most of the hits seemed to be obituaries. This headline from 2006 is typical.
Washington Star Society Columnist Betty Beale, 94
Miss Beale and the Star are no longer with us. Her profession seems to be headed for a similar fate.  As for being presented at a ball, we know precisely when that took a dive thanks to Google’s Wedding Crunchers. It’s basically their n-grams function, but the database is wedding announcements in the New York Times.*

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)


Being presented at a ball started its rapid decline in 1998. Five years later, it had disappeared. Even if you had been presented at a ball, it was not something you wanted to include in your Times announcement. 

What new distinctions have arisen in place of balls? I dont know, but Wedding Crunchers might be a great resource for clues.  There’s much more to be gleaned from Wedding Crunchers. The default page shows changes in bride ages (26 - 33). In 1993, the most frequent age was 26. Last year, it ranked seventh out of eight.Things change, even for the elite.

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*HT: Andrew Gelman.

Snickers and the Last Laugh

April 1, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Advertisements echo with many reverberations and overtones. Different people hear different things, and with all the multiple meanings, it’s not always clear which is most important. 

Lisa Wade posted this Snickers ad from Australia at Sociological images (here). Its intended message of course is “Buy Snickers.” But its other message is more controversial, and Lisa and many of the commenters (more than 100 at last count) were understandably upset.


The construction workers (played by actors) shout at the women in the street (not actors). “Hey,” yells a builder, and the woman looks up defensively. But then instead of the usual sexist catcalls, the men shout things like,
I appreciate your appearance is just one aspect of who you are
and
You know what I’d like to see? A society in which the objectification of women makes way for gender neutral interaction free from assumptions and expectations.
The women’s defensiveness softens.  They look back at the men. One woman, the surprise and delight evident in her smile, mouths, “Thank you.”

But, as the ad warned us at the very beginning, these men are “not themselves.”


Hunger has transformed them. The ad repeats the same idea at the end.


Here’s Lisa’s conclusion:
The twist ending is a genuine “fuck you” to the actual women who happened to walk by and become a part of the commercial. . . . I bet seeing the commercial would feel like a betrayal. These women were (likely) given the impression that it was about respecting women, but instead it was about making fun of the idea that women deserve respect.
I suspect that Lisa too feels betrayed.  She has bought her last Snickers bar.

It may be unwise to disagree with one’s editor, especially when the editor is a woman who studies sex and gender, and the issue at hand is sexism.  But my take is more optimistic. 

In an earlier generation, this ad would have been impossible. The catcalls of construction workers were something taken for granted and not questioned, almost as though they were an unchangeable part of nature.* They might be unpleasant, but so is what a bear does in the woods.

This ad recognizes that those attitudes and behaviors are a conscious choice and that all men, including builders, can choose a more evolved way of thinking and acting.  The ad further shows, that when they do make that choice, women are genuinely appreciative. “C’mon mates,” the ad is saying, “do you want a woman to turn away and quickly walk on, telling you in effect to fuck off? Or would you rather say something that makes her smile back at you?”  The choice is yours.

The surface meaning of the ad’s ending is , “April Fools. We’re just kidding about not being sexists.” But that's a small matter. Not so far beneath that surface progressive ideas are having the last laugh, for more important than what the end of the ad says is what the rest of the ad shows – that ignorant and offensive sexism is a choice, and that real women respond positively to men who choose its opposite.

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*Several of the comments at Sociological Images complained that the ad was “classist” for its reliance on this old working-class stereotype.