Growing out of research on the effect of group processes on decision-making, group polarization theories explore the tendency of people in groups to shift their opinions toward the extreme pole of popular opinion. This research was pioneered by James A. F. Stoner (1961), who first found the tendency in groups who were considering risk-taking behaviors; the phenomenon was thus initially labeled "risky shift." Theorists believe that group polarization is caused by either social comparisons, persuasive arguments, or a combination of the two. Group polarization has been applied to understand behavior cases ranging from political and financial decision-making to gambling.
Keywords Consensus; Conformity; Group Polarization; Groupthink; Incestuous Amplification; Minority Influence; Persuasive Argumentation; Risky Shift; Social Comparison Theory
Social Interaction in Groups
One of the basic quests of sociology is to discover the effect of groups on individual action. One area that has attracted much research in both sociology and psychology is the question of how groups can influence the decision-making of individuals.
Group polarization is the phenomenon that occurs when the consensus opinion of a group is more extreme than opinions previously held by the individuals in it. James A. F. Stoner (1961) was the first to identify and write about what he initially called risky shift. Stoner conducted a study in which participants were asked to advise fictional characters. Participants had to make decisions while they were alone, then five people were put into a group with the task of reaching consensus. Stoner found that each participant's opinion became more extreme as a result of the group conversation; the group opinion encouraged riskier behavior than the individual opinions had before group discussion. Stoner's study launched many other empirical studies that further specified and clarified this phenomenon.
For example, Wallach, Kogan, and Bem (1964) discovered that individuals may seek greater risks if there is a belief that the risk associated with a decision is shared by all members of the group. Given the shared responsibility, the level of anxiety associated with making the decision lessens. Collins and Guetzkow (1964) found that individuals who thrive on taking risks tend to be extremely confident and have the ability to convince other members of the group to take risks. Bateson (1966) found that individuals will continuously evaluate the level of risk associated with a decision. As a result, they can become comfortable with the risk associated with a decision and underestimate it.
Risky shift eventually became known as group polarization or group-induced attitude polarization (Isenberg, 1986). The change in name arose from discoveries about the dynamics of this tendency. People in groups would shift their opinions away from the average and toward the extreme version of the opinion favored by the group. Thus, if individuals in the group favored risk on average, then after discussion, they would each favor even riskier behavior. The same would be true if the average tendency was toward caution; after discussion, members would shift their opinions toward a more cautious level. Polarization refers to the shift of opinion toward an extreme, and is analyzed as a group phenomenon; it is the average of the groups' opinions that reliably shifts toward the extreme (Myers & Lamm, 1976).
Group members tend to be alike and hold the same values, and members are encouraged to conform to the rules and norms of the group. The discovery of group polarization contradicted previous findings about group behavior. Earlier studies suggested that group opinions tended to fall into a middle ground and that groups reached decisions that were the average of the opinions of the individuals in the group, revealing a trend toward conformity (Allport, 1924; Farnsworth & Behner, 1931; Sherif, 1935). Conformity occurs when members of the group give in to perceived pressures from the other group members. In one famous study, Asch (1952) found that the majority of subjects would conform to other group members' opinions, even when these directly contradicted the evidence of their own senses. Group conformity is common and follows regular patterns. For example, as a group gets larger, more people tend to conform. However, once the group reaches a certain size, the members' need to conform will plateau. Also, people tend to conform if the other members in the group agree unanimously; dissent from just one member is enough to splinter previous consensus (Henslin, 2002). There are many reasons why people may feel the need to conform to the standards of a group. Some of the reasons include
- A need to feel liked and accepted by the group,
- A desire to be a part of the "in" group,
- A fear of rejection by the group,
- A perceived access to information, or
- A desire to obtain a reward from the group.
Group polarization would thus seem to contradict or at least problematize the findings of earlier studies, a fact that led researchers on a quest to specify under what circumstances this tendency toward greater extremes appeared. Some have theorized that the earlier studies showing a preference for conformity toward an average may have been overstated. Because earlier experiments that revealed a tendency toward conformity did not consider the impact of the subject matter that participants discussed, the tendency toward conformity might have revealed a lack of commitment to the subject at hand. For example the Asch experiment asked subjects to pick which lines matched other lines; this was not a subject over which many would have invested emotions or felt a deep commitment. Moscovici and Zavalloni (1969) found that if the subject of an experiment is anything that will cause participants to become personally involved — that is, if it is something that evokes meaning among group members — then group polarization is likely to result.
How Does Group Polarization Work?
There are two competing theories of the mechanism behind group polarization: social comparison processes (Isenberg, 1986; Sanders & Baron, 1977) and persuasive argumentation (Burnstein & Vinokur, 1977; Isenberg 1986).
Social comparison theorists have developed two explanations for group polarization, both of which emphasize that individuals constantly compare themselves to the group to judge how they appear to others and to develop a sense of how they are doing socially. One line of social comparison theory believes that observed polarization arises because individuals are ignorant of the beliefs of others. Thus, when they initially state their opinions to the group they may soften their opinions in an attempt to strike a balance between their own views and their (wrongly estimated) assumptions about others' opinions. When they discover that the groups' opinions are different than assumed, they then adjust their own stated views to be closer to their actual beliefs, and therefore more extreme. Other social comparison theorists believe that polarization arises from one-upmanship. They think that individuals want to be unique and to stand apart from others, but in socially...
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