Moving Toward Agreement from the Extremes

Image courtesy of Nihat Dursun –

In the last post, I summarized different ways of thinking about the effect of extreme beliefs on efforts to resolve conflict and solve problems. Elizabeth Bader approaches the mediation context in terms of personality and psychoanalytic theory, while Eggers and O’Leary describe how government solutions to major issues can be derailed, in part, by the distorting influence of existing beliefs.

In this post, I want to review studies that extend this discussion to other frames of reference. Cass Sunstein, a prominent law professor, addresses the role of deliberation as it relates to the formation of extremist groups and the larger political institutions that control extremism through the system of checks and balances. Though these books address different types of policy discussions, they agree that fruitful dialogue can occur among people holding extreme and opposing views but only if they are willing to consider new ideas and possible changes to their positions.

  • Cass Sunstein’s Going to Extremes explains the ways extremist groups form and the effect of deliberation in their resistance to moderation. His frame of reference is the role of the political system of checks and balances in managing the impact of extremism rather than the use of ad hoc collaborative deliberation.

  • James Fishkin’s When the People Speak combines theory and empirical evidence to establish the effectiveness of the Deliberative Polling technique to help citizens of differing views move closer to shared positions on controversial policy issues. His basic concern is the use of deliberative process involving ordinary citizens to influence the formation of public policy by government. His work has become a cornerstone of practice in the emerging field of Deliberative Democracy.

The experience gained from these approaches helps to sharpen the picture of group decision-making and to identify the most favorable conditions for building agreement when major differences divide participants.

Deliberating toward Extremes

Sunstein’s study of extremism argues that, under certain conditions, dialogue between groups of sharply opposing views can increase polarization rather than reduce it. However, he also identifies conditions favoring the depolarization of groups through deliberation. Here’s a quick summary of a few of his leading ideas:

  • One of his most important and startling conclusions is that extremists move the most as a result of open-minded deliberation among themselves, but the direction of change is to become more extreme rather than to find a middle ground. This tendency isn’t limited to extremist groups.

  • People sharing the same general orientation, such as liberal or conservative, but having a wide range of views on a particular issue, also tend to move to a more extreme position after deliberation within their groups. This happens if members of the group are willing to listen to each other and are open to change. The discussions also tend to make their views more homogeneous than at the outset.

  • Even more surprising is evidence showing that this tendency also occurs in diverse groups, like a civil jury considering a damage award. Deliberation may move the participants farther toward an extreme rather than pull the extremes closer to the center. This happens if there is a well-defined predeliberation tendency in one direction and if people are willing to listen to each other and remain open-minded.

    That “predeliberation tendency” is the result of purely individual preferences uninfluenced by any group discussion. In a truly diverse group – especially one like a jury drawn from a random pool and screened to exclude people biased in one direction or another – it is probably more likely than not that participants will have a tendency favoring one side or another. But moderation can occur if they are split evenly.

  • Groups consisting of equally opposed subgroups may move toward the middle ground but only if they are willing to listen to each other and to modify their thinking about an issue. Not surprisingly, subgroups that are passionately and rigidly attached to predeliberation positions will not move at all.

Sunstein offers several explanations for the tendency toward extremism. One is what he calls rhetorical advantage. There are certain issues that may stir feelings of fairness or justice or personal welfare, like civil rights or punishment of an offender or health care. The proposed actions or policies with this advantage appeal to people on a deeper level and may be more readily accepted than proposals that don’t satisfy that sense of rightness.

Also, people who are more confident tend to pull toward their point of view those who are uncertain about what to think. They don’t achieve this by dominating discussion or shutting out other ideas but simply by the sureness of their considered judgment. A third phenomenon is called the “eureka moment.” If an idea or new information is introduced that suddenly strikes everyone as the true answer, then groups will converge on that.

Deliberating Away from Extremes

James Fishkin’s study rejects the idea that diverse groups generally move toward extremes and offers more than a decade of Deliberative Polling projects to prove the point. This method, one of the most influential in the field of Deliberative Democracy, draws together a group of citizens from a randomized sample of the general population. These candidates are screened for their willingness to participate in a policy discussion and – as in jury selection – screened for exclusion due to existing bias or advocacy of a particular position. The point is to assemble a group of ordinary citizens who may have existing preferences about important public problems but remain completely open-minded.

In a structured process, participants record their initial views in questionnaires prior to the first meeting, and they receive background information that objectively presents the full range of policy options and relevant data. Then the participants meet and deliberate with the aid of an independent facilitator. At the end of the process, their views are polled once again to measure changes in the policies they favor. In most cases, there are significant changes that often surprise public officials and can directly influence their formal decisions. Results show that groups do not move toward the extreme of the “well-defined predeliberation tendency”, as Sunstein claims, and may wind up favoring a position that started out as the minority preference. In these projects, deliberation results in modification of views but not in the direction of extremism or polarization.

Sunstein attributes these findings to the special conditions of the Deliberative Polling process. The influence of a facilitator, he believes, may well alter the dynamics of discussion. Furthermore, the polling process Fishkin uses does not require that groups reach a decision either by majority or consensus. The changes in preferences are determined entirely through pre- and post-deliberation questionnaires. Sunstein sees these differences as crucial to results that vary from other empirical evidence about group decisions. The unique method of Deliberative Polling, he believes, makes it quite different from most policy discussions.

These two activist thinkers come together, though, on one of the key questions. Under what conditions can strongly opposed groups use deliberation to moderate their positions and come to agreement? Fishkin presents one example of a Catholic-Protestant dialogue group in Northern Ireland in which the participants did move closer together on education issues. However, he points out that success depended on selecting a subject for deliberation that was not the focus of intense partisan battling. In other words, on that issue the participants were not inflexible about their preferences and could remain open-minded.

Sunstein has found the same thing. There won’t be any change in position between opposing groups that are passionately attached to predeliberation positions. In that frame of mind, they’re likely to ignore or distort new information and distrust anything their opponents might offer.

Participants have to be open-minded and able to detach their judgment about the issues from emotional commitment and other non-rational factors that block the mind from considering new ideas. Whether looking at this problem from the perspective of mediation, governmental problem-solving, the dynamics of extremism, the influence of citizens on public policy or interest-based negotiation, the process of bringing opposing groups closer to agreement depends on rational thinking and objective analysis.

Nevertheless, as earlier posts like this one discussed, non-rational elements pervade every deliberative or collaborative process. The next post in this series will pull together ideas from all these frames of reference about the specific methods collaborative leaders and practitioners can use to manage the influence of extreme thinking and non-rational attitudes.


2 Responses to “ Moving Toward Agreement from the Extremes ”

  1. John,

    As I was reading your thoughts, I was thinking about the recent “Healthcare Summit” at the White House, with the President, as described by the AP, the “moderator-in-chief”.

    Since Cass Sunstein is now a White House advisor to the President, it made me wonder what, if any, influence he had in the designing the format of that “summit”.

    It made me wince every time I saw the Moderator (i.e., the President) interrupt a speaker with his own thoughts. We have a Moderator to preside at our Town Meeting (here in New England) and, though he may interrupt a speaker, it is only to keep the discussion on-track or civil, but never to interject his own opinion on the subject.

    I was wondering how YOU would have designed the “Healthcare Summit” differently. I think there’s a better way and, so, worth pointing out to the “newbie-collaborators” at White House.

    I’d like to think Cass Sunstein could turn to those people there and say, “See, I TOLD you so!”

  2. Hi, Steve –

    It’s nice to hear that your Town Meeting is so conscientiously managed and still functioning well for the community. I didn’t follow the Healthcare Summit closely, so I’ll need to look at videos to get a sense of the overall flow of the discussion. I have my doubts that any President could long refrain from adding opinions whenever he wanted to – and can’t see a President acting only as a careful facilitator.

    But that’s an interesting challenge to come up with an alternative design. I’ll follow up on that for a post here.

    Thanks for commenting.