Group Polarization

“The less you are contradicted, the stupider you become. The more powerful you become, the less you are contradicted.”—Aaron Haspel, Everything (2015)

Flock of sheep, New Zealand, PacificWhenever you get a group of people together who share certain basic assumptions, there’s a natural tendency for the group to gravitate toward the most uncompromising, extreme, strident, fundamentalist, hard-core positions. Social psychologists call this tendency Group Polarization. It happens on juries with some regularity. It explains why the Tea Party became so insane, so deeply out of touch with the needs and views of the average American voter. And it explains why the Bush Administration invaded Iraq without an exit strategy (they stopped inviting people who disagreed with their assumptions—people like Colin Powell—to the planning meetings).

That being said, don’t get me wrong, there’s no harm in group polarization if you’re just having fun, or brainstorming. But if you actually want to change the world, if you actually want to communicate and be relevant, it’s a tendency that must be actively resisted. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2013), psychologist Jonathan Haidt maintains that the best way to resist group polarization is to actively cultivate ideological diversity—viz., talk (and listen) to people who you disagree with on a regular basis. This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them. But you should listen, bite your lip if you have to, and try to be as respectful as possible. Silencing people, shouting them down, resorting to name-calling prematurely (e.g. “you’re a racist!” or “you’re a misogynist!”)—these things just alienate people.

Here’s what happens if you succumb to group polarization: Before you know it, you wake up, look around, and find that everyone around you pretty much agrees with you. And that feels good. After all—I’ll be the first to admit it—preaching to the choir is fun. But it’s a dangerous kind of fun. Why? Because you start to get intellectually lazy. Because you start to speak in a specialized jargon that no one outside of your sacred circle can understand. Because you develop a contempt for everyone outside of your elite group of cool kids that frequently leads you to dehumanize “the unwashed masses.” Eventually, if you live in your little bubble long enough, you’ll become delusional, like the ill-clad emperor in the Hans Christian Andersen tale.

Surrounding yourself with people who tell you what you want to hear is toxic. Sweet as it sometimes sounds, the siren song of the doctrinaire must be resisted, lest ye be shipwrecked on the rocky coast of the Isle of Impotentia. Wanna change the world? Stop preaching to the 20% who agree with you and arguing with the 20% who disagree with you; focus, instead, on the 60% who aren’t sure. Wanna know the world? Stop preaching and arguing and persuading and listen.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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