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Humans are by nature social learners. We know how to tap into the wisdom of the crowd, when, for example, we're given the opportunity to poll the audience on a game show. Recently, an intriguing new study showed that people naturally tapped into crowd wisdom to improve their ability to interpret a climate-related graph--but their ability to learn was ruined by the mere suggestion of political labeling.

In that study, researchers asked several thousand people who had identified as a Democrat or a Republican to forecast the future using a NASA graph tracking the amount of Arctic sea ice.

Study author Damon Centola of the University of Pennsylvania said that Republicans were more likely than Democrats to fall for so-called endpoint bias--the often erroneous assumption that the noise at the tail end was more important in predicting the trend than the long-term data.

Participants got a lot smarter when they could see the answers of 40 other people assigned to the same task. After consulting with the wisdom of the crowd, 85 percent of Republicans got the trend right--slightly outperforming the Democrats.

But that changed once the researchers started adding the Republican or Democratic logos to the bottom of the participant's screens in a way that suggested these labels would apply to their erstwhile collaborators. Then nobody learned anything.

With labels often comes dismissal. It's easier for some people to brush off a useful or even brilliant idea if it's perceived as coming from a sanctimonious liberal or a stodgy conservative, a member of the elite, or a person without sufficient education. If only we could attain liberation from the self and its biases.

Editorial on 09/16/2018

Print Headline: The way we see things

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