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.

Related resource: 10 Most Affordable Top-Ranked Master’s in Industrial-Organizational Psychology

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, also called “groupthink” 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.

Persuasion

Individuals within the group change their minds from their initial stances because others within the group demonstrate a rational argument.

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 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.

Informative 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, if there is enough information to back it up, it must be correct.

Group Polarization in Organizational 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.

Consider that the staff of an organization works under a team of supervisors and upper-management that do not abide by best practices. Staff 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.

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.