What is Group Polarization?

what is group polarization

What is group polarization?  First identified in 1969 by social psychologists Serge Moscovici and Marisa Zavalloni, group polarization refers to members of a group taking on a position collectively that is significantly more extreme than the positions of the individuals before convening.

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The Theories of Group Polarization

Why do people in groups tend to behave this way? There are multiple theories adopted by social psychologists to explain why group polarization occurs that all come back to the same initial cause– the minority changing their opinion for the sake of agreement with the majority. Some in the field break the phenomena down into three theories: differentiation, comparison, and persuasion.

Differentiation

Individuals within the group change their minds because they feel these are the types of decisions a group should make.

Comparison

Individuals within the group alter their stance because they think that the majority opinion must be more socially acceptable.  This social comparison often happens within an organization.

Prior to a decision-making meeting, individuals have their own opinion and often feel their opinion holds more weight than that of their peers.  As group discussion takes place, individual group members figure out that their beliefs were not as unique as initially thought.  The group discussion shifts the direction of the conversation and individuals may shift their opinion to the more extreme position of the group.

Persuasion

Individuals within the group change their minds from their initial stances because others within the group demonstrate a rational argument.  Group members may form a more extreme opinion after hearing the arguments of others.  This type of persuasion can lead to a choice shift which could be risky or cautious.

Significant arguments occurred in the 1970’s as to whether persuasive arguments could account for group polarization on their own.  There is evidence that both the persuasive argument and social comparison effects can happen at the same time as well as independently.

These theories for group polarization can be broken down further into two main categories: normative influence and informative influence.

Normative Influence

Normative Influence states that people will alter their opinions in a group setting in order to fit in or be looked upon more favorably by their peers. New group members can come into the group with an even more extreme point of view and have the entire existing group agree with them in order to fit in with the newcomers.

Informational Influence

This theory implies that people will enter a group discussion with information on both sides then make a final decision based on the side that presents more information regarding the opinion. Even if the individual does not necessarily agree with what is being presented during the group discussions, if there is enough information to back it up, it must be correct.

Group Think vs Group Polarization

While groupthink and group polarization are important in understanding workplace behavior, the two are very different.  In groupthink, individuals come into the discussion with their own thoughts and beliefs.  After group discussions, individuals go along with the group idea and all but discard their opinion.

Groupthink can happen when individuals don’t want to upset the group or cause discourse.  The group doesn’t evaluate the consequences of their decision.

Group polarization happens when the group adopts a more extreme decision.  Individuals may have come to the decision meeting with their own thoughts and views but adopt more extreme positions as they enjoy a more radical and unique approach after hearing other group members.

Unfortunately, group polarization can result in extremely conservative or risky shift depending on the dynamics of the group.  These extreme attitudes can be dangerous if left unchecked.

Group Polarization in Organizational Psychology

What is group polarization in psychology?  Organizational psychologists, or industrial-organizational psychologists, solve problems and improve environments within the workplace by using the principals and research methods of psychology. Using these techniques, they are able to get a general sense of the personalities within a company, as well as employee morale and well-being. As was outlined by Psych Central, the signs of radical group polarization are easy to identify to an experienced professional.

Group Polarization Examples

Consider that the staff of an organization works under a team of supervisors and upper-management that do not abide by best practices. Individual group members are most likely unhappy in this type of environment, but because the powerful majority has put these practices in to play, the minority is tolerating it to keep the peace (normative influence). Perhaps because the majority of management stresses that these practices are acceptable with their behavior, informative influence would suggest that the amount of information pointing to it being acceptable has made the behaviors common practice for all.

Group polarization also happens in online discussions.  A study in 2002 by Sia, Tan and Wei, found that when a group discussion takes place between individuals who cannot see each other, there is a higher degree of group polarization compared to a traditional meeting where there is face to face contact.  They believe this happens because of an increased number of novel arguments and a higher incidence of one-upmanship type behaviors due to the social comparison theory.

An experienced Organizational Psychologist would be able to recognize these patterns as group polarization and assist the organization in solving the problem at hand.

Because of the nature of organizational psychology, understanding group polarization and groupthink is crucial to a successful practice as an industrial-organizational psychologist.

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