The Situation of Polarization
Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 15, 2008
Bill Bishop has a recent situationist piece in Slate, “Extremism at McCain Rallies Comes Naturally.” Here are a few excerpts.
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College kids who join a conservative fraternity move to the right during their four years in college. Liberals from Boulder asked to discuss some issues of the day, such as global warming and gay marriage, are more liberal at the end of their discussion than before. Racists brought into a room to discuss race grow more intolerant.
Social psychologists have conducted scores of these “group polarization” experiments since the ’60s, and they all come to the same finding: Like-minded people in a group grow more extreme in the way they are like-minded.
Homogeneity creates extremity—or, in the news of the day, a McCain rally.
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What’s going on? The talk-show talk has been that John McCain and Sarah Palin incite this kind of behavior. They certainly haven’t helped, but blaming the candidates misses what’s happening, and why.
Social scientists have proposed several reasons for why like-minded groups tend to polarize. Two have survived scrutiny. The first is that homogenous groups are privy to a large pool of ideas and arguments supporting the group’s dominant position. Everybody hears the arguments in favor of the group’s belief, and as they’re discussed, people grow stouter in their beliefs.
The second reason like-minded groups polarize has more to do with how we see ourselves. We are constantly comparing our beliefs and opinions to those of the group. There are advantages to being slightly more extreme than the group average. It’s a way to stand out, to ensure others will see us as righteous group members.
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“It’s an image-maintenance kind of thing,” explained social psychologist Robert Baron. Everybody wants to be a member in good standing, and though it sounds counterintuitive, the safest way to conform is to be slightly more extreme than the average of the group.
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Those at the McCain or Palin rallies who talk about “hooligans” and “treason,” who call Barack Obama a “terrorist,” “bum,” or “socialist,” aren’t simply responding to speeches from the candidates. They are acting as members of a like-minded group exactly as social psychologists would predict, which is a less-than-comforting thought.
In his textbook on social psychology, David Myers writes, “Terrorism does not erupt suddenly. Rather, it arises among people whose shared grievances bring them together. As they interact in isolation from moderating influences, they become progressively more extreme. The social amplifier brings the signal in stronger. The result is violent acts that the individuals, apart from the group, would never have committed.”
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Read the entire article here.
To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Being ‘(un)American’,” “History of Groupthink,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part V,” “March Madness,” “Deindividuation and Seung Hui Cho,” “The Origins of Sports Team Fandom,” “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” and “Situationist Theories of Hate – Part II.”
This entry was posted on October 15, 2008 at 12:01 am and is filed under Conflict, Emotions, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics, Social Psychology, Uncategorized, Video. Tagged: Conservatives, extremism, John McCain, moderates. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.