Rational Polarization


Predictable polarization is everywhere: we can often predict how people’s opinions—including our own—will shift over time. Extant theories either neglect the fact that we can predict our own polarization, or explain it through irrational mechanisms. We needn’t. Empirical studies suggest that polarization is predictable when evidence is ambiguous, i.e. when the rational response is not obvious. I show how Bayesians should model such ambiguity, and then prove that—assuming rational updates are those which obey the value of evidence (Blackwell 1953; Good 1967)—ambiguity is necessary and sufficient for the rationality of predictable polarization. The main theoretical result is that there can be a series of such updates, each of which is individually expected to make you more accurate, but which together will predictably polarize you. Polarization results from asymmetric increases in accuracy. This mechanism is not only theoretically possible, but empirically plausible. I argue that cognitive search—searching a cognitively-accessible space for a particular item—often yields asymmetrically ambiguous evidence; I present an experiment supporting its polarizing effects; and I use simulations to show how it can help explain two of the core causes of polarization: confirmation bias and the group polarization effect.

Author's Profile

Kevin Dorst
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


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