“Opinion cascades” show some political party stances may be due to chance and initial conditions, with Dr. Michael Macy

In this episode of the podcast, I interview Dr. Michael Macy of Cornell University, whose research on “opinion cascades” show how some political group stances on issues can be rather arbitrary and due to initial conditions (a good summary of the study). Similar to how in many complex systems, slightly different initial conditions can lead to vastly different results later on, the early conditions in a country, including early opinion-holders and influencers, can influence a political party to be aligned with one or another stance on an issue. These early choices have a cascading effect, meaning that, for some issues, the political parties could hold reversed positions if things had gone a bit differently.

Links to this episode:

Topics discussed:

  • How was Michael Macy’s opinion cascades study set up? What kinds of issues did they ask participants about?
  • What political party stances might be due to fundamental ideological differences versus which ones may be more arbitrary and due to chance?
  • Could Democrat and Republican party stances on abortion, immigration, and other issues actually be reversed in a slightly different world?
  • How does this work relate to problematic political polarization?
  • Can political stances be influenced by simply wanting to be aligned against an opposing group’s stance?
  • Is there something inherent in humans that lead them to form contentious us-versus-them groups?