To Tell the Truth

Professor Cass Sunstein '72

Amid daily discussions of “real” versus “fake” news, Middlesex welcomed back Cass Sunstein ’72 on February 23 to speak at a gathering in the Terry Room. A bestselling author, accomplished legal scholar, and the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard, Cass talked about his previous work as administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) – a post he held from 2009 to 2012 – and offered his thoughts about “a way forward for our country.”

Starting the evening with an informal experiment, Cass asked everyone to mentally rate their own appearance on a scale of one to ten. He then asked everyone imagine that an impartial group of people has also made such a judgment, which is two points higher. “If you are like most people,” Cass said, “you will update your own rating and make it two points higher.” Yet, if the group’s rating was two points lower than your own, he countered, “You’ll either walk out or not change your opinion.”

Experiments just like this, he explained, have demonstrated that people consider news to be uninformative when it contradicts their opinion, but they find news that confirms their existing viewpoint to be influential. “What I’m describing works for basically everything,” he summarized.

“This is a picture of what’s happening in our country today,” Cass observed. “People are getting a deluge of good news and bad news, fake news and true news. Some people think the good news is completely convincing, and the bad news is a lie. Some people think the bad news is convincing, and the good news is a lie.”

Why does this happen? “What you believe is an artifact of what you want to be true,” Cass said, a human tendency known as “motivated reasoning.”  And if people exclusively consult information that they find agreeable, it further cements their viewpoint, preventing them from weighing evidence and coming to a more considered opinion.

Furthermore, Cass continued, “Our capacity to self-sort into echo chambers is happening every day in America.” For example, Facebook advises its users to select their primary newsfeeds based on what is most important to them – in effect, recommending that people only receive information from sources that already share their viewpoint. “That’s not going to expand your horizons,” Cass asserted.

When he first worked for OIRA in Washington, Cass found that even as some staff members focused on determining how certain regulations would affect the American people, they would warn him that a few senators would oppose any regulation, no matter what the benefit. Doubting those staffers initially, he eventually learned that they knew what they were talking about.

Based on this experience, Cass advised his Middlesex listeners to ignore special interest groups and instead ask themselves, “What are the actual facts?”  Additionally, he recommended consulting a variety of news sources in order to become better informed and avoid living in an echo chamber. Quoting philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill, Cass said, “It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. …Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.”

Middlesex students had many questions, including what incentive Facebook might have to change its approach and how it might do so. Cass suggested the creation of an “opposing viewpoint” button to block unwanted viewpoints – and a “serendipity button” to receive a range of opinion. “You need to know what people who sharply disagree with you think,” he urged. As he found through working with oppositional senators in Washington, “You might not agree with each other, but you might learn from each other.”

Professor Cass Sunstein '72

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