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The Concept of Group Polarization in Psychology Explained

The Concept of Group Polarization in Psychology Explained
The concept of group polarization states that a person tends to shift to a more extreme opinion when in a group setting than what his/her original opinion might have been. PsycholoGenie will help you understand the various nuances of this concept in greater detail.
Rujuta Borkar
Last Updated: Mar 1, 2018
Did You Know?
The Holocaust, the failure to anticipate the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the escalation of the Vietnam War, are all examples of the negative effects of group polarization.
As human beings, all of us harbor certain opinions about several issues in society. Subsequently, we acknowledge when we're 'against' something or 'pro' something; such that when asked where we stand on a particular issue, we are able to state it.

However, studies have proven that the degree of our personal opinions tend to change when we're in a group setting and take on more extreme forms. This phenomenon is referred to as group polarization. In this PsycholoGenie article, we will try to understand what this concept entails, why it comes about, and what are the effects of the same.
To state an example, let's say that a person thinks that child beauty pageants―contest featuring under-age children―are not a very good idea. This opinion that he/she harbors could be a very mild one, where she might not really have given it a lot of thought. However, if she's placed in a group and this topic is taken up for discussion, there is a very high possibility that by the end of the discussion, she will not only be completely against child beauty pageants, but she may begin stating this opinion more firmly, and maybe, even join a protest group.
Group Discussion
Certain other group polarization real-life examples include varied acts of terrorism, mob mentality, public policy, violent acts, peer pressure, college life, and decisions taken by a jury.
The Risky Shift and Group Polarization
The group polarization theory has its roots in a predecessor theory called 'the risky shift' that was put forth by an MIT student, James Stoner, in the year 1961. According to Stoner, the decisions that are taken as a part of a group are much more riskier than when these decisions are taken as an individual before the group has met. To prove this, Stoner conducted a test which presented the subjects with a hypothetical situation in which they had to judge whether the decision that was taken by an individual would prove to be beneficial or risky. After they filled a form that had a list of probabilities, their results were recorded, and they were then asked to discuss the situation with a group. The findings showed that in their individual recordings, the subjects chose a safer course of action, whereas in the group discussion, these same people tended to opt for a more riskier course. This action was called the risky-shift, and it prompted further studies on the subject.
Why Does Group Polarization Occur
Varied studies that were conducted post the findings of the risky-shift, propelled psychologists to study this in greater detail. Varied theories explaining why group polarization occurs were thus drawn. Given below are the two main theories that explain why this phenomenon occurs.
Normative Influence
Also known as the social comparison interpretation, this theory states that people tend to change their opinions when in a group in order to 'fit in' or to be accepted and looked upon in a favorable light. Individuals tend to study the group and find the pulse of the group as far as popular opinions are concerned, they then opine the same views but in a more extreme form, such that they not only appear to share the popular opinion, but are looked upon as possessing leadership qualities. The loop then begins wherein other members of the group begin to take on a more extreme viewpoint in order to be closer to the 'leader's' opinions.
Informational influence
Also known as the persuasive arguments theory, this concept states that people tend to enter a discussion with favorable information for both sides of the argument, and then change their opinion favoring that side which provides more information in its arguments. This happens because they themselves aren't sure of the side to go with, and they tend to follow the side that is more 'in charge' or distributes more information.
Recent studies have revealed that group polarization does not depend on the location and proximity of the group; this became apparent when examples of group polarization were witnessed on social media mediums like Facebook and Twitter. It was seen that polarization occurred when a particular issue was discussed and similar-opinionated people came together to form a group. Thus, even though these people were not in the same place, they still followed all the rules of this concept.
Effects of Group Polarization
Group polarization can have both positive and negative effects. When polarization occurs in a team-building exercise, wherein it is used by the members as a tool of encouragement and motivation to reach a final goal, then it is taken in a positive light. However, most often, this phenomenon is looked upon with wary and caution because it tends to promote the 'rule of the majority', and if that opinion turns out to be the wrong one, it can invariably lead to disastrous decision-making.
Another concept that is closely linked to negative group polarization is known as groupthink. This theory is guided by the tendency of the members of the group to suppress their doubts and fears about the decision that has been reached, for the fear that they will disrupt the group harmony and form a bad impression about themselves.
The concept of group polarization forms an important part of social behavior and goes on to prove (once again) that man is a social animal who is influenced and affected by others in society. However, given that it could lead to negative effects as well, there is a need to consciously steer clear of being affected by the same.
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