Have you ever noticed that groups that start out just thinking that maybe we should look into something can turn into groups of wild extremists? Law professor and prolific writer Cass R. Sunstein weighed in on group deliberations and extremism in the Yale Law Journal (“Deliberative Trouble? Why Groups Go To Extremes”, 2000). He describes his intent as “to case light on enclave deliberation as simultaneously a potential danger to social stability, a source of social fragmentation, and a safeguard against social injustice and unreasonableness.” (from part I)
Sunstein does a very clear review of the current literature, and points out that groups’ tendency toward extremism — or polarization — has been little studied yet greatly affects decision making, especially in juries, something in which Sunstein has a strong interest as a law professor.
Polarization means that groups can start out with a particular bias but will move farther toward a more extreme position. For example, he gives the example of a group a women who begin to meet in order to discuss their concerns about feminism limiting their choices away from homemaking. They will end up being fiercely against feminism. The same for racial hatred groups: we all start with a vague dislike of a race but after meeting together for some time, we end up at a very extreme position.
What’s odder is that individuals will take more extreme positions in groups than they actually hold.
Some of this happens because people don’t want to be wrong. Or perhaps because they don’t want to fight what they perceive as everyone else’s position. Many of us can remember getting slammed by some group, only to have certain members take us aside afterwards and tell us that they disagreed with this, but they couldn’t say anything during the meeting because they feared reprisals. I have to wonder if the slaughter of Jews in Poland happened the same way, a general vague feeling against Jews by the Poles blew up quickly into “let’s kill them all right now!” What’s really weird is that you can have this happen even when the majority of the group members hold a more moderate position.
You can mitigate a group’s tendency towards polarization by including more points of view. Unfortunately, out-groups are less likely to speak or be heard during mixed meetings, so including them may not have an ameliorating effect.
Combine the literature of polarization with that on conformity and you have disturbing problems. In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram ran the famous “shock the learner” experiment which showed that most people will obey orders way beyond what their personal morals dictate. It may well be that polarization results from similar mechanisms.
For change agents, this means that you want to make sure that your most extreme critics are not in the room when you start talking with the others. By getting everyone who slightly agrees with the change, you can let them polarize into a group who believes that the change must be done. This can be effective in neutralizing those who will sabotage the change for whatever reason. It can also turn an organization from the bottom up by producing a large group of very strong supporters of a particular action or change.
Sunstein also has an interesting article on “The Future of Free Speech” in The Little Magazine, “South Asia’s only professionally produced print magazine devoted to essays, fiction, poetry, art and criticism”. He’s pretty prolific and you should be able to find a variety of articles (such as ” The Daily We: Is the Internet really a blessing for democracy?“) by Googling him.
Image Credit: Attendees at the 1952 Republican National Convention, Chicago, Illinois. 1952 by Thomas J. O’Halloran, U.S. News & World Report Magazine. Donated into the public domain. Via Library of Congress.