It’s a common cliché that two heads are better than one. We assume that the more people there are in a group, the better they’ll be at making good decisions. We expect that they’ll reach a “middle ground” of the most reasonable, moderate conclusions.
That’s how groups would operate in an ideal world. But unfortunately, it doesn’t always turn out that way. Sometimes, groups end up supporting extreme viewpoints and risky decisions. And the concept of group polarization helps us understand why.
Group polarization describes the tendency of a group to shift towards more extreme conclusions than any member originally believed.¹ This shift usually occurs in the direction of group member’s initial beliefs.²
For example, imagine a group that’s discussing immigration policy. Suppose that most group members are moderately in favor of increasing border security.
After discussion, the group’s ideology will shift to more strongly support border security. They’ll favor very strict, zero-tolerance immigration laws.
In other words, what started as a moderate viewpoint has become a more extreme version of itself—referred to as a “risky shift.”³ That’s group polarization in a nutshell.
Group polarization is counterproductive at best. It prevents us from acknowledging other viewpoints, turning groups into “echo chambers” that make bad decisions.⁴ At worst, it creates toxic social environments and promotes extremist views. So it’s important to understand what causes group polarization, and how we can prevent it.
Causes of Group Polarization
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Psychologists identify 2 main concepts that explain group polarization. The first is informational social influence: our behavior is affected by what information we receive from our social setting.⁵ The second is reputational influence, describing our drive to gain social approval.⁶
1. Persuasive Arguments
According to the persuasive arguments phenomenon, group members’ opinions shift based on which arguments seem most convincing.⁷ Remember our immigration-policy example? The key fact was that group members already favored one viewpoint.
If a group starts off with an ideological bias, then group members will only hear arguments that support their original position.⁸ Instead of assessing the pros and cons of their viewpoint, they’ll only hear the pros.⁹ In comparison, any opposing viewpoint will seem invalid. They’ll start to believe more and more strongly in their original opinion, causing it to morph into an extreme version of itself.¹⁰
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2. Social Comparison
Group polarization is also caused by our need to be socially accepted.¹¹ When we’re surrounded by people who support a certain viewpoint, we feel pressured to adopt that viewpoint, too.¹² We want the group to approve of us and our opinions; we don’t want to seem uninformed or unintelligent.
This social pressure discourages moderate or cautious views.¹³ Expressing doubt might make us appear uncertain or cowardly.¹⁴ As a result, extreme viewpoints dominate group discussion, and moderation is suppressed.
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Group polarization is especially obvious on the Internet. Let’s use social media as an example of how the two causes of polarization play out in real life.
First of all, there’s informational influence. Social media sites are great at filtering information.¹⁵ When you join an online community—like a Facebook group—that shares a particular viewpoint, you’ll only see information from that viewpoint.
Your social media feed will confirm and encourage these opinions, without offering alternative ideas. Essentially, it’ll become an echo chamber.¹⁶ And because opposing views are filtered out, the entire group will become more extreme.¹⁷
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Then there’s reputational influences. Social comparison takes a slightly different form on social media. Instead of pressure to be accepted, we’re forced into competition for others’ attention.¹⁸
Many platforms reward people who stir up controversy and express extreme opinions. Comments with the most responses are often placed at the top of the page for everyone to see, while well thought-out arguments are ignored.¹⁹
As a result, polarization is encouraged. The more extreme your views, the more attention you’ll receive from the group.
How to Depolarize
Group polarization promotes ignorance and poor decision-making, online and offline. Businesses suffer when management fails to consider other opinions. Political polarization keeps our government from working together on important issues. So how do we solve this?
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First of all, we can encourage productive discourse. Social media, as well as in-person meetings, should set behavioral expectations and rules for discussions.²⁰ It’s helpful to have a trained facilitator present to point out when an argument lacks evidence and step in if an opposing view is unjustly attacked.²¹ This sort of facilitation encourages people to critically examine their own beliefs, instead of jumping to extreme conclusions.²²
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We can also reduce polarization by promoting positive intergroup contact. For example, interacting with someone from the opposing political party in a friendly, controlled environment encourages cooperation and makes you more aware of what you have in common.²³
When we realize how similar we really are, we don’t feel so defensive. We’re able to listen and be open to other perspectives.
Group polarization is unfortunately common, but it doesn’t have to be. When we’re aware that it’s happening, we can intervene to keep the dialogue open, considerate, and tolerant.
Sunstein, C. R. (1999). The Law of Group Polarization. University of Chicago Law School, John M. Olin Law & Economics Working Paper, (91). doi:10.2139/ssrn.199668
Alvim, M. S., Knight, S., & Valencia, F. (2019). Toward a Formal Model for Group Polarization in Social Networks. In M. S. Alvim, K. Chatzikokolakis, C. Olarte, & F. Valencia (Eds.), The Art of Modelling Computational Systems: A Journey from Logic and Concurrency to Security and Privacy (Vol. 11760, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, pp. 419-441). Cham, Switzerland: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-31175-9
Isenberg, D. J. (1986). Group Polarization: A Critical Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(6), 1141-1151. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1991
Alvim et al. (2019)
Del Vicario, M., Vivaldo, G., Bessi, A., Zollo, F., Scala, A., Caldarelli, G., & Quattrociocchi, W. (2016). Echo Chambers: Emotional Contagion and Group Polarization on Facebook. Scientific Reports, 6. doi:10.1038/srep37825
Strandberg, K., Himmelroos, S., & Grönlund, K. (2019). Do Discussions in Like-Minded Groups Necessarily Lead to More Extreme Opinions? Deliberative Democracy and Group Polarization. International Political Science Review, 40(1), 41-57. doi:10.1177/0192512117692136
Wojcieszak, M., & Warner, B. R. (2020). Can Interparty Contact Reduce Affective Polarization? A Systematic Test of Different Forms of Intergroup Contact. Political Communication. doi:10.1080/10584609.2020.1760406