Group polarization refers to the tendency of social groups to adopt more extreme attitudes than the initial attitudes of their individual members.
So, for example, when several sports fans come together to support a team, they can be much more aggressive—booing the sporting officials or antagonizing the other teams’ fans—than they would have been otherwise.
This tendency is seen in a wide range of settings, such as political, social, and organizational groups. It can sometimes lead to positive outcomes, such as creativity & better decision-making; but it can also be extremely dangerous, promoting binary thinking, prejudice, and extremist actions.
Several theories explain why group polarization occurs, which we will discuss later. First, let us discuss the concept in more detail and look at some examples.
Definition of Group Polarization
Moscovici & Zavalloni define group polarization as:
“…the phenomenon that after group discussion, the average judgment of group members tends to be more extreme in the direction that was initially favored by the group” (1969).
The concept of group polarization comes from James Stoner’s unpublished Master’s thesis, where he called the phenomenon “risky shift” (1961). His thesis argued that a group’s decisions are riskier than the average individual decisions of members before they met.
Stoner’s finding was considered quite surprising. This was because earlier work in the 1920s and 1930s suggested that individuals made more extreme decisions than groups; in other words, it was believed that group decisions were simply the average of individual decisions.
However, Stoner’s work went against these ideas, and by the 1960s, it was widely accepted. Risk was just one type of attitude that became more extreme in groups. So, Moscovici and Zavalloni came up with the term “group polarization” for the general phenomenon
Examples of Group Polarization
- Social Media: Social Media exacerbates group polarization by bringing like-minded users from all over the world together. Iandoli et al. (2021) argue that social media enables homophily (the tendency to engage with similar people), creating groups where certain views are dominant. Moreover, since the users are distributed throughout the world and often anonymous, it leads to a greater degree of group polarization; this is because a greater number of users bring more novel arguments and also engage in more one-upmanship behavior. (Sia et al., 2002)
- Ideological groups: All ideological groups demonstrate group polarization. Racial hate groups, such as Ku Klux Klan, bring out the prejudice of individuals and make them much more violent. Religious fanatics behave similarly; by themselves, they may be comparatively passive, but they can engage in extremely violent actions when together, such as riots and mob lynchings. Group polarization not just amplifies negative views but also positive ones: a group of women with moderately feminist views will tend to show heightened feminist views after group discussion (Myers, 1975).
- Legal Contexts: Multiple studies have shown that legal decisions are affected by group polarization. If a jury member is in favor of lower punitive damage awards, they will go even lower after discussions and vice versa. Federal district court judges also behave differently when they worked alone and when in small groups (Walker, 1973). Judges who sat alone took extreme action 35% of the time. In contrast, when judges sat in small groups, they took extreme action 65% of the time. So, even professional decision-makers are prone to group polarization.
- Charles Lord’s study: In 1979, Lord & his colleagues conducted a study in which they selected two groups of people: one strongly favored capital punishment, while the other opposed it. They handed a card to each of the groups, which presented research arguing how capital punishment was effective in curbing murders. Later, both groups were given cards with research arguing for the opposite stance. Lord found out that the participants believed only the research supporting their original stance, and it led them to become more confident in their position.
- Sporting events: Group polarization often takes place during sporting events, as many fans come together to support a particular team. Each fan identifies with the team, and once they come together with other like-minded individuals, they feel a greater sense of social identity. They may be passive as individuals, but when they have other fans supporting them, they are more likely to engage in extreme behaviors, such as booing sporting officials or being antagonistic to the other team & their fans.
- Politics: Group polarization is widely seen in political contexts, where it leads to political polarization. This means that there is a greater divergence of political views away from the center, towards ideological extremes. In the United States, for example, many researchers have argued that there has been greater polarization in the electorate and the hostility between opposing political parties has increased.
- War & Conflicts: During wartimes and conflict, group polarization occurs and is often responsible for many violent acts. For example, in ethnic conflicts, there is greater identification with the ingroup and hostility toward the outgroup, which exacerbates group polarization. While group polarization can happen in all conflicts, it is particularly dangerous in large-scale inter-group, public policy, and international conflicts.
- College life: Group polarization can also be seen in the everyday life of college students. In his 2005 study, Myers found out that initial differences among American college students become amplified over time. For example, students who do not belong to fraternities or sororities tend to be more politically liberal, and this difference grows even further over time. Myers argues that this is because group members reinforce each others’ opinions.
- Blackjack: Group polarization also impacts risk-taking activities. In their study of blackjack, Blascovich et al. (1975) found out that individuals who did not play the game in groups were unlikely to change their risk-taking level. In contrast, those playing in groups tended to progressively take higher risks. So, the group amplifies the individual’s initial tendencies of risk-taking and makes them bet higher.
- Internet Algorithms: The Internet promotes group polarization not only by bringing like-minded people together but also by its inherent technology. Algorithms analyze user behavior and present to them what they are most likely to see. As such, video streaming platforms like YouTube are unconsciously creating groups looking for extreme content (Bastug, 2020). The users keep getting exposed to content that reinforces their views while not being recommended or avoiding perspectives with which they disagree.
Theories Behind Group Polarization
Several theories try to explain why group polarization occurs, such as social comparison theory, informational influence theory, etc.
The social comparison theory argues that group polarization occurs because individuals wish to gain acceptance and be seen favorably by the group. People first observe and evaluate the values of the group.
They then take up a position that is similar to everyone else’s but slightly more extreme. This allows them to present themselves as “leaders” while still supporting the beliefs of the group.
Isenberg argues that this phenomenon is more likely to work with judgmental issues, a group goal of harmony, and person-oriented group members (1986).
The informational influence theory (also known as the persuasive arguments theory) argues that individuals become more convinced of their views when they hear more novel arguments supporting their stance.
Assuming that most members of the group are already leaning in one direction, then they will present many ideas supporting that view. This would bring up new arguments that some members may not have known earlier, which would strengthen their original stance further.
Self-categorization theory posits that when individuals identify with a group, the membership becomes an important part of their self-concept. So, the individuals conform to a prototypical group position that is more extreme than the group average.
Group polarization remains a contemporary issue of our times. It refers to the tendency of groups to behave more extremely than the individual members would have done otherwise.
This tendency takes place in various settings, from a simple living-room discussion to legal contexts. Even professional decision-makers, such as judges, are not free from the influence of group polarization.
There are various theories explaining why group polarization occurs, such as social comparison theory, informational influence theory, etc. Today, social media and internet algorithms play a huge role in exacerbating group polarization.
Bastug, M. F., Douai, A., & Akca, D. (2020). Exploring the “demand side” of online radicalization: Evidence from the Canadian context. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 43(7), 616-637. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2018.1494409
Blascovich, J., Ginsburg, G. P., & Howe, R. C. (1975). Blackjack and the risky shift, II: Monetary stakes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 11(3), 224-232. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0022-1031(75)80024-2
Iandoli, L., Primario, S., & Zollo, G. (2021). The impact of group polarization on the quality of online debate in social media: A systematic literature review. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 170, 120924. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2021.120924
Isenberg, D. J. (1986). Group polarization: A critical review and meta-analysis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 50(6), 1141.
Moscovici, S., & Zavalloni, M. (1969). The group as a polarizer of attitudes. Journal of personality and social psychology, 12(2), 125. doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/h0027568
Myers, D. G. (1975). Discussion-induced attitude polarization. Human Relations, 28(8), 699-714. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/001872677502800802
Myers, D. G. (2007). Exploring Social Psychology: Fourth Edition. New York: McGraw Hill.
Main, E. C., & Walker, T. G. (1973). Choice shifts and extreme behavior: Judicial review in the federal courts. The Journal of Social Psychology, 91(2), 215-221. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.1973.9923044