Group Polarization Definition
Group polarization occurs when discussion leads a group to adopt attitudes or actions that are more extreme than the initial attitudes or actions of the individual group members. Note that group polarization can happen in the direction of either riskiness (risky shift) or conservativeness. One example is the way in which unruly mobs (e.g., lynch mobs) often commit horrendous acts of violence that no individual member would have been brash enough to attempt (the kidnapping and hanging of humans by the neck until the point of death).
Another example is the way in which relief agencies often attempt and accomplish wonderful acts of benevolence that no individual group members would have been ambitious enough to deem possible and then attempt, for example, providing food, clothing, and long-term housing to survivors of natural disasters.
Group Polarization Explanation
One explanatory reason for group polarization is the sharing of persuasive arguments. For example, when the majority of a group’s members are initially like-minded and present arguments (a) that support the attitude or action, and (b) that other group members have not yet considered, then the group members’ initial attitudes will become stronger. Thus, the attitudes of the group, as a whole, will be stronger compared to the individually assessed attitudes of the members. Note also that during the sharing of persuasive arguments, group members may have a tendency to reiterate, at least in part, the arguments presented by other group members. This repetition of ideas also can strengthen the group’s and individuals’ attitudes. It is important to note that when the majority of the group initially is not in agreement and, instead, is split on an issue, depolarization can occur as a result of group members trading persuasive arguments. Depolarization refers to a shift away from the extremes and toward the middle.
Another explanatory reason for group polarization is the influence of social comparison. For example, one group member may assess other group members’ attitudes and then adopt a similar or more extreme attitude. People have a tendency to like those who are similar to themselves. It follows, then, that if people want to be liked by group members, one way to accomplish this is to have beliefs or attitudes that are consistent with those of the group.
A number of things factor into whether making persuasive arguments or social comparisons will have a more polarizing effect on the group: the nature of the task (judgmental vs. intellective), the goal of the group, what the group considers more important (group cohesion vs. making correct decisions), what the individual group members consider more important (group cohesion vs. making correct decisions), and the nature of the response required of the individuals (public vs. private). Persuasive arguments tend to be most effective in situations in which the nature of the task is intellective, the group values accuracy more than cohesion, the individuals value accuracy more than cohesion, and private responses will be given. Social comparisons tend to be most effective in the situations in which the nature of the task is judgmental, the group values cohesion more than accuracy, the individuals value cohesion more than accuracy, and public responses will be given.
Culture, Gender, and Age
The direction of the attitude shift is influenced by cultural variables. Individualistic cultures (North American countries such as America and Canada) have a tendency to value independence and risk more than dependence and caution. Collectivistic cultures (Asian countries such as Taiwan or South American countries such as Argentina and Brazil) tend to value dependence and caution more than independence and risk. Research by Lawrence K. Hong in 1978 demonstrated that groups comprising individualistic culture members are more likely to experience risky shift, and groups comprising collectivistic culture members are more likely to experience cautious shifts. The direction of attitude shift is also influenced by gender and age. Research by Margo Gardner and Laurence Steinberg suggests that men are more likely to experience risky decision making compared to women, and younger persons (children, teenagers, and young adults) are more likely to experience risky decision making compared to older persons (persons aged 24 and older). It is important to note that the gender difference appears to decrease as age increases.
Evidence for Group Polarization
Traditionally, one of three types of methodologies has been used to illustrate group polarization effects: hypothetical choice scenarios, self-report behaviors, and behavioral observation. Hypothetical choice scenarios require group members to select one of two imaginary options (riskier vs. safer) or to choose a percentage or level of risk in an imaginary scenario. For example, given a scenario about a sick woman who has an opportunity to have an operation that could either kill her or completely cure her, group members are asked whether or not they would endorse having the operation. Alternately, given the same scenario, group members are asked the lowest probability of success they would consider before endorsing the operation. The self-report behaviors method requires people to report how often they engage in risky behaviors. The behavioral observation method requires external observers to observe and assess how often, or to what extent, people engage in risky behaviors.
Group Polarization Implications
Group polarization addresses ways in which a group of individuals interacts and influences the evolution of more extreme attitudes and actions. This concept is relevant to the topics of attitude strength, attitude extremity, and attitude change.
- Brauer, M., Judd, C. M., & Gliner, M. D. (1995). The effects of repeated expressions on attitude polarization during group discussions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 1014-1029.
- Byrnes, J. P., Miller, D. C., & Schafer, W. D. (1999). Gender differences in risk taking: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 367-383.
- Gardner, M., & Steinberg, L. (2005). Peer influence on risk taking, risk preference, and risky decision making in adolescence and adulthood: An experimental study. Developmental Psychology, 41, 625-635.
- Stoner, J. A. F. (1961). A comparison of individual and group decisions involving risk. Unpublished master’s thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. Cited in Marquis, D. G. (1962). Individual responsibility and group decisions involving risk. Industrial Management Review, 3, 8-23.