Biased assimilation, homophily, and the dynamics of polarization


We study the issue of polarization in society through a model of opinion formation. We say an opinion formation process is polarizing if it results in increased divergence of opinions. Empirical studies have shown that homophily, i.e., greater interaction between like-minded individuals, results in polarization. However, we show that DeGroot’s well-known model of opinion formation based on repeated averaging can never be polarizing, even if individuals are arbitrarily homophilous. We generalize DeGroot’s model to account for a phenomenon well known in social psychology as biased assimilation: When presented with mixed or inconclusive evidence on a complex issue, individuals draw undue support for their initial position, thereby arriving at a more extreme opinion. We show that in a simple model of homophilous networks, our biased opinion formation process results in polarization if individuals are sufficiently biased. In other words, homophily alone, without biased assimilation, is not sufficient to polarize society. Quite interestingly, biased assimilation also provides a framework to analyze the polarizing effect of Internet-based recommender systems that show us personalized content.

Authors: Pranav Dandekar, Ashish Goel and David T. Lee

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