Group polarization psychology definition

Group polarization is a socio-psychological phenomenon that arises as a result of a group discussion, during which the dissimilar opinions form two polar opposite positions that exclude any compromises. However, it can also arise outside of open discussion, as a result of systematic exchange of views between participants in joint activities, leading to groupings with polar positions. In its extreme form, group polarization expresses the state of intragroup conflict. The term “group polarization” was introduced by S. Moskovici. In the American tradition, this phenomenon is typically described with the term “general shift in choice”. The opposite experience to the one described is called group normalization.

What is group polarization? [in other words]

The concept of group polarization states that a person in a group is prone to an extremely harsh expression of their opinion (not implying a compromise) than it might sound initially. This phenomenon occurs when a discussion leads participants to adopt unacceptable attitudes or difficult actions. 

Let’s consider the various nuances of this concept in more detail.

Group polarization occurs when discussion forces the group to adopt attitudes or actions that are more extreme than the initial attitudes or actions of individual members of the group. It can occur in the direction of two poles – an increased degree of risk or conservatism.

Each of us adheres to a certain point of view about various problems, situations, phenomena. We are always able to explain why we are in the “for” or “against” position regarding a particular issue. However, research has shown that the extent of our personal opinions can change through group discussion.

For example, a person thinks that children’s beauty contests are not a good idea. Initially, this opinion has a rather mild degree of manifestation, as one, perhaps, did not even think about this issue seriously. However, if a person is placed in a company where this topic will be actively discussed, there is a chance that by the end of the discussion one will not only be against children’s beauty contests but will also express this opinion more harshly.

Group polarization example

Another example could be volunteer relief organizations. They often try to perform wonderful acts of charity, while many of the organization’s members were not determined enough to try to do this alone.

Also, manifestations of group polarization in life are examples of various crowd behavior, politics, violent actions, peer pressure, life at an institute or university, and decisions made by the jury of competitions.

Risky shift and group polarization

The idea of ​​group polarization is rooted in a theory called “risky shift”, which was offered by James Stoner in 1961. Decisions made as part of a group are much more risky than those decisions made individually, prior to contact with the group.

To prove this, Stoner ran a test that presented participants a hypothetical situation. They had to evaluate whether the decision made by the person was beneficial or risky. After they filled out a form containing a list of probabilities, their results were recorded, and then they were asked to discuss the situation in the team.

The results showed that in their individual notes, people chose a safer approach, while in general discussion, these same people tended to be more rigid. This difference in the strength of the assessment was called the shift towards risk.

Causes of group polarization

Regulatory Impact

This theory is also known as social comparison theory. It claims that a person, as a rule, changes their mind in a team in order to fit in and be accepted, to look in a favorable light. People, as a rule, study the group, find its main trends in terms of popular opinions. Then the same views are expressed, but in a brighter, more extreme form, so that one gets the feeling that they not only share the popular opinion but are also viewed as having leadership qualities. After that, other members of the team begin to adhere to a more extreme point of view, in order to be closer to the opinion of the “leader”.

Informational influence

This theory is also known as the theory of argumentation. A person enters into a general discussion, having their own level of awareness about each side of the fact (event, case), but then changes their mind in favor of the side that will provide more information. This happens because we ourselves are sometimes not sure how to approach the consideration of the fact, and tend to follow the side that is more “authoritative” or provides more information.

Culture, gender and age

Culture also influences the change in attitudes. For example, individuals in a culture prone to individualism (countries such as the United States or Canada) tend to take risks more often and value independence more than dependence and caution. People from cultures inclined to collectivity (for example, China, Argentina, Brazil) tend to value dependence and caution more than independence and risk.

Actually, many factors influence whether arguments or social comparisons will have a polarizing effect. This can be the nature of the task, purpose, priorities, unity, things individual members consider more important, the nature of the reactions required from individuals (public versus private). Convincing arguments, for example, are most effective in situations where the nature of the task is intellectual, where the group values ​​quality over solidarity. Social comparisons tend to be most effective in situations where the task is evaluative and the group values unity highly.

Group polarization vs groupthink

The concept closely related to negative group polarization is known as groupthink. This theory is guided by the tendency of group members to suppress their doubts about the decision made because of the fear that they will disturb the harmony of the group, which will lead to a bad impression of themselves.

Talking about groupthink vs group polarization, let’s have a closer look at their causes. The reasons for group polarization have been listed above, so you can consider those for groupthink below. 

  • The illusion of invulnerability
  • Rationalization
  • The pressure of conformity
  • The illusion of like-mindedness

Group polarization [psychological effects]

Group polarization has both positive and negative aspects. For example, it arises in team-building exercises in which participants use it as a tool of encouragement and motivation to achieve the ultimate goal. Then, of course, this effect is perceived exclusively in a positive light.

Most often, however, this phenomenon is treated with caution, as it contributes to suppression by the majority. If the opinion is wrong, it will invariably lead to catastrophic decision-making processes.

The concept of group polarization is an important part of interpersonal communication and once again proves to us that a person is a social being, influenced by others and society. Given that this effect can lead to both positive and negative consequences, try to be conscious and critical of everything that happens to you and around you.

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