Polarization Processes Definition
Like the North Pole and the South Pole or the opposite ends of a magnet, poles represent extreme end-points, and polarization indicates movement toward those extremes. In psychological terms, polarization processes describe movement in individuals’ views toward opposite extremes. For example, imagine a group of individuals that includes both moderate supporters and moderate opponents of abortion, and imagine they engage in a discussion of the issue. Imagine further that each side then becomes more extreme in its respective support of, or opposition to, abortion. That movement to more extreme positions is said to reflect polarization because each side has moved to a more extreme pole or endpoint on the relevant continuum. In social psychology, polarization processes have been studied in three domains: group decision making, attitudes, and intergroup perception.
Group Decision Making
Beginning in the 1960s, researchers became interested in how individual judgments could be affected by group discussion. A typical study would present individuals with a number of problems, known as choice dilemmas, in which the task was to indicate a preference for one of two possible solutions to each problem. For example, participants would be asked to indicate the minimum probability that a new company will survive before a prospective employee should accept a position with the company rather than retain an existing job. In the typical design, participants would indicate their responses individually and then engage in a conversation about the problem with other members of a group. The group would be asked to render its unanimous joint decision, and then each member would be asked to indicate, once again, his or her personal response.
The standard finding from such research was that a group would reach a joint decision favoring more risk than the average response of its constituent members. For example, imagine that a group included three members, and one of those members indicated initially that there had to be a 5 in 10 chance that the hypothetical company would succeed before the employee should accept the new position. Imagine another group member indicated a response of 3 in 10, whereas the final member responded with 1 in 10. The average response of the three members would then be 3 in 10. However, after discussion, the group might come to a joint decision of 2 in 10, and individual members’ personal responses might also gravitate toward the riskier end of the probability continuum. This finding was labeled the “risky shift” because group discussion tended to push individuals to adopt, on average, riskier solutions to choice dilemmas than they initially favored.
Later research, however, suggested that the nature of the particular dilemma determined whether groups would end up favoring more risk than their average member or, alternatively, would favor more caution. For some choice dilemma items, for example, after group discussion, individuals who had previously expressed mild endorsement of the safe option would end up endorsing an even safer option. Accordingly, instead of the risky shift, the phenomenon became known as group polarization, because groups tended to move individual members to adopt positions that were somewhat more extreme than their initial stances. If those initial positions favored risk, then groups would prompt greater endorsement of risk; if instead, a safe option was preferred, then after group discussion, it would be more preferred.
Two primary factors have been cited as responsible for group polarization effects. The first involves the presence of persuasive arguments. Being a member of a group means that there is an opportunity to be exposed to novel arguments regarding an issue— arguments that can help reinforce and strengthen an individual’s initial position, producing movement toward the extremes. In addition, social comparison processes can operate in a group, with each member making an effort to demonstrate that he or she endorses the apparent group norm. Such processes can produce a situation in which individuals move to more extreme positions in an attempt to position themselves squarely on the appropriate side of the safe-risk continuum.
A second domain in which polarization processes have been studied is that of attitudes. Beginning in the 1970s, research on attitude polarization demonstrated that people who were asked to think carefully about a particular attitude that they held ended up endorsing a more extreme version of that attitude.
Related research has suggested that attitudes can become more polarized as a result of a biased search for evidence in support of the initial attitude. For example, in one study, capital punishment opponents and proponents were exposed to written arguments that both supported and refuted some traditional justifications for the death penalty. After being exposed to such mixed evidence, these partisan subjects became more persuaded of the correctness of their initial attitude. This polarization of initial positions appeared to occur because participants engaged in biased interpretation of the relevant evidence, uncritically accepting information that supported their initial positions while subjecting to harsh scrutiny information that contradicted their initial stances, a phenomenon that has been labeled “biased assimilation.”
A final domain in which polarization processes have been studied involves intergroup perception, in which, typically, members of opposing groups are asked to make judgments concerning the views of both members of their side and members of the opposite side of some contentious issue. In one study, for example, supporters and opponents of abortion were asked to predict the view that would be espoused by the average pro-choice and the average pro-life member of their respective groups. Members of both groups overestimated the extremity of the average view held by each side, believing that the two groups were farther apart in their views than they actually were, a phenomenon labeled “false polarization.” The implication of these inaccurate perceptions is that disputants who overestimate the degree of difference between the views of each side may consequently miss opportunities to resolve intergroup conflict.
- Brown, R. (1986). Social psychology: The second edition. New York: Free Press.
- Ross, L., & Ward, A. (1995). Psychological barriers to dispute resolution. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 27, pp. 255-304). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.