Birds of a feather flock together - but why?

August 21, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

There they go again. I'm listening to a political call-in program on the radio, and a caller says he doesn't believe the major opinion polls. That's his right, but I wait to hear some evidence.

Instead I hear this: "And everyone I've talked to feels like I do."

Wow. Somebody break the news to Gallup, Harris, Roper, Zogby and all those other pollsters. Politicians and major corporations don't need to keep spending gazillions of dollars on polls and focus groups. All they have to do is talk to this guy's pals.

One of my pet peeves is people who don't stop to realize that the whole world might not be thinking about the world or experiencing it the same way that they and their friends do. In politics, economics and other current affairs, people often are influenced less by facts than by their friends. Increasingly, sociologists are finding that, whether we intend to or not, birds of a political feather flock together.

Almost 20 years ago, sociologist David Knoke at the University of Minnesota found that you can predict someone's politics with great certainty if the person's closest two or three friends all leaned in one political direction.

As another presidential election heats up, it's wise to understand the subtle but important role that the attraction of like-minded individuals plays in our political attitudes.

To the political strategists who make their living in such matters, we're not really "red state" or "blue state" America, according to Douglas B. Sosknik, Matthew J. Dowd and Ron Fournier, the bipartisan authors of Applebee's America. Instead, they argue, we're a bunch of "Red Tribes, Blue Tribes and Tipping Tribes" shaped by our lifestyle choices and persuadable by anyone who makes a "gut values connection" with us.

But do our views shape our friendships? Or do our friends shape our views? "It's not an either/or question," said Duke University sociologist Lynn Smith- Lovin. "But if I had to choose, I would say most of what we learn is shaped by our associations, and that our associations are shaped more by the structures in which we live - our neighborhoods, workplaces, churches, the clubs we join and so forth."

She added, "Political beliefs become just another part of the soup of information that you share with one another."

Critical ingredients in that soup, says sociologist Mario Luis Small of the University of Chicago, are our demographics and our shared experiences. People with similar incomes, backgrounds, work categories and family situations gravitate to the same places, activities and, ultimately, friendships.

For example, his research for a forthcoming book turned up this unexpected revelation: The care of children is only one of several benefits of child-care centers. Thanks to the friendships they form, mothers suffer less depression, social isolation and material hardship than comparable mothers who do not use the centers.

These days, Ms. Smith-Lovin noted, we are more likely than ever to have our group-shared partisanship hardened by a growing array of Internet sites and other media dedicated to very specific tastes and viewpoints. Increasingly, if you so desire, you and your friends can cruise through an entire day of media without ever sharing the viewpoints or experiences of someone unlike yourselves.

Many find that narrow sampling of the world to be comforting, no doubt. Complexity makes some people nervous. But the world is complex, and sometimes discomfort is good. We learn things not only by reinforcing our cherished beliefs but also by seeing how well those beliefs stand up next to somebody else's views.

In other words, it's not easy for birds of a feather to leave their flock, but sometimes it's worth the flight.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

Trudy Rubin's column will return next week.

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