Massively Circular Hyper-Polarization

Hyperpolarization Graphic

Newsletter 86 — February 22, 2023


From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess


A Further Look at Massively Parallel Processes

Many of our recent Substack newsletters have, in various ways, been exploring strategies for dealing with the scale and complexity of the hyper-polarization problem and, more specifically, ways in which a massively parallel approach could help mount the kind of multi-faceted, very large-scale response that the problem requires. We have also been exploring the role that massively parallel partisanship is playing in pulling us apart (and making the problem even more intractable). This was accompanied with a look at how extreme forms of partisanship are, to an uncertain but probably quite significant degree, being engineered by people who we, in our original CRQ article, called "bad-faith actors."  In some cases, such bad-faith actions arise from the simple desire of news outlets to build larger, more loyal, and more lucrative audiences. In other, more sinister cases, geopolitical adversaries and domestic actors who aspire to political power use inflammatory tactics (including provocateurs) as part of various types of divide-and-conquer strategies. (This is something that we plan to explore much more fully in upcoming newsletters.)

Feedback Loops

All of these efforts are part of a more fundamental effort to understand the forces that, for good or ill, lead large-scale, complex systems composed of millions of independently minded individuals to self-organize around the pursuit of some common objective.  In this post, we are going to explore two other ways in which such systems can organize themselves in ways that influence the broad direction of society and the quality-of-life enjoyed by its citizens. More specifically, we are going to focus on complex arrays of mutually reinforcing negative and positive feedback loops. Negative feedback loops lock societies into stable systems of social relationships that are extremely difficult to change, while positive feedback loops lead to rapid change including explosive conflict, social disintegration, the collapse of unjust regimes, and, unfortunately, the rise of new and equally unjust regimes.

Negative Feedback Loops

The feedback processes underlying these dynamics are perhaps best understood in the context of a simple thermostat — a feedback system with which we are all quite familiar.  With negative feedback, any deviation of the system away from some desirable or undesirable equilibrium state provokes a reaction that pushes the system back toward equilibrium. With a thermostat, if a room gets too hot, the system turns off the furnace and allows the room to cool down until it is too cool and it turns the furnace back on again. The things that have made so many aspects of society so stable for so long are, in large part, attributable to similar negative feedback loops — loops that may operate at the psychological, social, cultural, economic, and political levels.

These loops tend to keep economic supply and demand in balance, they punish people who deviate too far from social norms, and they prevent us from doing things that are too cognitively dissonant. Cultural traditions embody feedback processes that often force us to do things that are good for the community, even when we don't want to (e.g., paying taxes or obeying traffic laws). But they can also keep us trapped in destructive behaviors. For example, both the left and the right have behavioral expectations for their followers.  Members of the left are expected to be pro-choice, pro-DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) for racial and gender minorities, anti-big business, and particularly anti-big oil, and pro-wealth redistribution from the rich to the poor.  Members of the right are expected to be exactly the opposite. But these expectations force us into win-lose positions vis-a-vis most of our social problems, which means no solutions are to be found, no progress can be made on either side's agenda.

Positive Feedback Loops

The other, even scarier way in which complex systems self-organize is around complex chains of positive feedback loops. Going back to our thermostat example, a positive feedback loop is one in which the thermostat is miswired so that, when a room starts to get warm, the furnace turns up the heat rather than turning it down. Obviously, such systems will quickly lead to a fire or some other catastrophe. (This, in a nutshell, was the design flaw responsible for the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident.)

Positive feedback is also the dynamic that underlies the escalation spiral with its endless cycle of provocation and counter provocation. And, as we suggested above, it is a dynamic that is commonly engineered by conflict profiteers. At the extreme, it is a dynamic that has, since the dawn of the nuclear age, threatened to transform relatively minor superpower disputes into a massive thermonuclear Armageddon (or, perhaps, an equally scary exchange of biological weapons). It is also the dynamic that so dehumanizes people that genocidal violence becomes acceptable. It can even allow family arguments to escalate to the point of mass murder. It is why we have, for years, argued that such systems are the most destructive force on the planet.

Massively Circular Social Problems

Massively Circular Graphic
Massively Circular Hyper-Polarization

The above graphic illustrates how arrays of these feedback systems can massively organize society in ways that are quite problematic. (In the figure above these dynamics are illustrated as arrows in various shades of gray with each arrow indicating a different dynamic.)  The good news is that similar processes can also organize society in positive ways — ways that have produced much of human progress — a topic for a future newsletter. This graphic shows how the massively parallel arrows used in our earlier posts on massively parallel peacebuilding and partisanship can, when looked at from a societal perspective, reveal their massively circular character. You will note that the massively parallel arrows used in earlier posts have been turned into semi-circles and juxtaposed against one another in ways that emphasize the fact that the left and the right are pushing one another around in a circular trap. Each time somebody on the left feels provoked, they do something that provokes those on the right to do something provocative enough to sustain the cycle.

This cycle of provocation and counter provocation has long been recognized as being at the core of runaway escalation and polarization dynamics.  While there is widespread awareness of the many dangers associated with this cluster of dynamics, we have yet to find a way to extricate ourselves. The "scared straight" strategy sadly doesn't work. While a great many of us are scared and want to change, we have yet to muster the collective will to do so.  A big part of the reason is that there are large number of negative feedback dynamics, some of which we describe below, which threaten anyone who tries to break out of the trap. We need, and don't really get have, widely trusted strategies for countering these dynamics — something that we are trying to cultivate with massively parallel peacebuilding.

While there are a great many negative feedback dynamics that keep us locked in this hyper-polarization loop, we thought that we would highlight five that are both especially consequential and illustrative of the larger problem. These include:

  • The Industrial Complex Effect — This mechanism, which gets its name from Dwight Eisenhower's warning that national security policy was increasingly being influenced by giant industries that were benefiting enormously from military spending (he called this "the military-industrial complex"). In his view, this dynamic threatened to undermine, rather than enhance, national security. Similarly, there is now a vast array of political consultants and media companies who, together with political leaders, have been able to enhance their social position and their financial well-being by encouraging and, sometimes, provoking partisans on both the left and the right to enthusiastically embrace the hyper-polarization of our political process. This has placed the political classes on both sides in a kind of symbiotic relationship with one another where they directly benefit from increasing the intensity of the conflict. The associated demand for ever larger (and, often, more extreme) campaigns (which are highly profitable for the consultants and the media), does grave harm to our political process. In short, there is a conflict of interest between the interests of the political class and the larger society.
  • Tell People What They Want to Hear Media — In today's highly competitive media environment, conflict news outlets depend, for their financial success (and, even, viability), on building large and loyal audiences — audiences that are constantly being tempted away by other outlets seeking to expand their audiences. Such an environment selects for those outlets that most effectively cater to their viewers' cognitive biases and, especially, our their desire to be seen as one of the "good guys" who has been victimized by the "evil other" and is valiantly engaged in the "good fight" for a more just society. Outlets that offer more objective, but invariably less pleasing, content are at a competitive disadvantage — nobody likes to believe that they are less virtuous than others are telling them that they are. This process has locked us all into increasingly homogeneous information bubbles — bubbles that make it increasingly hard to imagine that the complaints of the other side are, in any way, legitimate. 
  • The Big Sort — Still another negative feedback dynamic is what Bill Bishop called "the big sort." People on both the left and the right have been slowly migrating into politically homogeneous areas where they have little direct contact with those with differing political views. The spaces we inhabit at work, at school, at play, and in religious congregations are filled with like-minded people.  In the absence of direct personal experience which might contradict the outlandish characterizations that swirl around our information bubbles, we tend to place our trust in our group's prevailing narrative.  And, even when we have doubts, we generally decide to play it safe and keep those thoughts to ourselves — choosing not to risk our position in the daily web of social interactions upon which we are so dependent.
  • Orthodoxy Enforcement — Also making it hard for us to escape the us-vs-them trap are the various mechanisms for reinforcing (and enforcing) orthodox thinking on both sides. On the left, under the pejorative name "cancel culture" and the broader rubric of diversity, equity, and inclusion training and "compliance enforcement" programs, there are numerous formal and informal mechanisms which threaten severe penalties for violators of group norms — penalties that are often dispensed with little in the way of due process.  It has reached the point where people are extremely careful about what they say and are often very reluctant to speak at all. On the right, there are similar mechanisms that make it politically suicidal to pursue any sort of middle ground (as the near disappearance of Republican moderates demonstrates).
  • "It's Never Enough Syndrome" — In this hyper-polarized environment, competition for positions of social prominence and leadership is extremely fierce. This creates a constant incentive for aspiring leaders (and, especially those more concerned about personal power and status than group welfare) to find ways to challenge the existing leadership as inadequate defenders of the group's interests, while also promising to provide for more effective and less compromising leadership. This often involves the belittling of hard-won past accomplishments and the devaluing of the gains that resulted from past compromises. This is an incentive that pushes society toward evermore extreme us-vs-them rhetoric and tactics. And the constant threat posed by such individuals continues to inhibit those who might otherwise defend the progress that comes with compromise.

Subscribe to the Newsletter

Positive Feedback and the Risk of a Massively Explosive Spiral

Massively Explosive Graphic
Massively Explosive Hyper-Polarization

The five dynamics described above, along with a number of other related dynamics have, for decades, kept us locked in a largely stable (though slowly escalating) hyper-polarization loop. While this system is extremely costly (especially when measured in terms of lost opportunities), it is something we have been able to live with as we muddle from one bad, but sort of workable, "solution" to another.  The system even has benefits. After all, millions of "political hobbyists" enjoy tuning in every day to find out how their "team" fared in the latest news cycle.

Still, there are grave risks that this stable, negative feedback loop-dominated system could degenerate into a much more intense, positive feedback-driven process — a process that could very rapidly transform what is now a chronic, but manageable, political condition into something much more serious.  We risk discovering the wisdom of the saying, "it takes longer than you expect for things to go wrong, but when they do go wrong, things happen faster than you expect."  This is illustrated by the above figure which shows feedback loops that have been amplified to the point where they are now pushing the system outside of its stable equilibrium and toward some sort of catastrophic system breakdown.

To reduce these risks, we need to think much more seriously about scenarios that might push hyper-polarization out of its currently intense but stable level of acrimony. Think, for example, about what might happen if we were to experience a surge in acts of political violence, such as the political assassinations that rocked the United States in the 1960s or, perhaps, a deadly flurry of politically-motivated hate crimes or mass shootings. Or we could experience large public protests that bring opposing groups into direct contact with one another — contact that results in ambiguous acts of violence that leave both sides believing that they have been the victim of something truly terrible. Now, imagine what would happen if this escalates into a 1960s style explosion of large-scale civil unrest — unrest that places serious and competing pressures on police and military forces to take sides — something that could further escalate into the kind of direct military confrontation that could quickly slide into outright civil war.

For these and a great many other worrying (and perhaps more likely) scenarios, we need to develop early warning / rapid response projects charged with preventing positive feedback systems from taking off. Fortunately, there are organizations like the Trust Network and the Community Relations Service that have, for years, been working to build such capabilities.

In thinking about this and other, hopefully low probability, political mega-worries, it is worth remembering Kenneth Boulding's interpretation of Murphy's Law. By including the word "eventually," "if anything can go wrong it eventually will" Boulding transformed a joke into an undeniable scientific principle — one that highlights the dangers of allowing low probability risks of catastrophe to fester.

Massively Parallel Peacebuilding

Massively Parallel Peacebuilding Graphic
Massively Parallel Peacebuilding

As we have said before, painting scary pictures about how things might go wrong is not enough to get people to change — they have to have a clear image of a realistic and broadly supported strategy for actually achieving change. To be effective, such a strategy cannot try to resolve political conflict by suppressing opposing views. Instead, one has to constructively handle those conflicts. This is where an understanding of the many feedback loops that drive hyper-polarization and undermine constructive approaches to conflict is so critically important. Understanding these dynamics tells us what we need to do to fix them.  This is where massively parallel peacebuilding (MPP) comes in. MPP offers a strategy for mobilizing large numbers of independent, but mutually supportive projects, each designed to work in a particular setting, by replacing some destructive conflict dynamic with a more constructive alternative.

This is illustrated by the above graphic which shows a more positive way of breaking down the circle of hyper-polarization. Here, by showing people the advantages of responding to provocations in less, rather than more ,provocative ways, peacebuilders can help diminish the intensity and the impact of the dynamics described above. This allows the hyper-polarization system to collapse into a state with fewer and less intense conflicts. While this can't be expected to resolve the many issues that divide us, it can restore conflict's positive function as the principal engine of social learning. After all, the basic conflict and social learning interaction starts when somebody says "things would be better if YOU would change and that person responds by saying that "things are just fine," and they don't want to change. A constructive conflict handling system (and a good democracy) produces social learning by making wise, equitable, and efficient decisions about which proposals for change should and should not be implemented. And, it does so in a way that avoids violence while maintaining and strengthening relationships.

Massively Parallel Problem-Solving

One final, but very important thought. The above way of looking at complex, societal-level social problems applies to more than the problem of hyper-polarization. The same kind of negative feedback loops also underlie other intractable social problems — take systemic inequality as just one example. By systematically analyzing the many dynamics that have kept us locked into such grotesquely high levels of inequality, we can start to understand what we need to do to fix the broken wealth and power distribution system. This is what we should be talking about when we talk about systemic oppression, racism, and inequality. And this is a place where massively parallel problem-solving strategy offers great promise. This is a topic that we will explore in greater detail in an upcoming newsletter.

Subscribe to the Newsletter

Please Contribute Your Ideas To This Discussion!

In order to prevent bots, spammers, and other malicious content, we are asking contributors to send their contributions to us directly. If your idea is short, with simple formatting, you can put it directly in the contact box. However, the contact form does not allow attachments.  So if you are contributing a longer article, with formatting beyond simple paragraphs, just send us a note using the contact box, and we'll respond via an email to which you can reply with your attachment.  This is a bit of a hassle, we know, but it has kept our site (and our inbox) clean. And if you are wondering, we do publish essays that disagree with or are critical of us. We want a robust exchange of views.

Contact Us

About the MBI Newsletters

Once a week or so, we, the BI Directors, share some thoughts, along with new posts from the Hyper-polarization Blog and and useful links from other sources.  We used to put this all together in one newsletter which went out once or twice a week. We are now experimenting with breaking the Newsletter up into several shorter newsletters. Each Newsletter will be posted on BI, and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy here and find the latest newsletter here or on our BI Newsletter page, which also provides access to all the past newsletters, going back to 2017.

NOTE! If you signed up for this Newsletter and don't see it in your inbox, it might be going to one of your other emails folder (such as promotions, social, or spam).  Check there or search for and if you still can't find it, first go to our Substack help page, and if that doesn't help, please contact us

If you like what you read here, please ....

Subscribe to the Newsletter