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Essay on Polarization

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Free Essay on Polarization

Polarization is a phenomenon that frequently plays a significant role in the process of business communication or negotiations. Although polarization has been studies extensively in the academia, practical applications of the scholarly knowledge about polarization remain limited. Perhaps the best definition of polarization is given by Michelle Maiese and Tova Norlen (2003) in their essay of the causes of and appropriate responses to this phenomenon:

“Polarization is the process that causes neutral parties to take sides in a conflict. It also causes individuals on either side of the conflict to take increasingly extreme positions that are more and more opposed to each other” (“What is Polarization?”, para. 1).

As for the history of the study of polarization, it was observed in the early 1960s that groups of individuals tend to be more risk seeking than their members if the latter arrive at decision alone and independently (Stoner, 1961; cited in Isenberg, 1986). These findings were counter-intuitive, since earlier research pointed to the moderating effect of groups on individuals’ propensity to hold extreme views. The tendency of groups to arrive at more radical collective decision than their members would do individually has been referred to as a “risky shift”.

However, research during the following decades has discovered that sometimes groups tend to be more cautious than their members. Thus, an overarching term for this type of group dynamics was introduced: choice shift. In case pre-exiting inclinations of individuals towards a certain view or decision are strengthened in the process of group discussion, the so-called group-induced attitude polarization (Moscovici & Zavalloni, 1969, Myers & Lamm, 1976; cited in Isenberg, 1986) is said to occur. For instance, as Myers’ (1975; cited in Isenberg, 1986) research shows, feminist sentiment among moderately pro-feminist women is enhanced by group discussion.

The debate has ensued as to the causes of this phenomenon. In the mid-1970s, the conceptual disagreements between the proponents of two major theories, namely the social comparison theory (Sanders & Baron, 1977; cited in Isenberg, 1986) and persuasive argumentation theory (Burnstein & Vinokur, 1977; cited in Isenberg, 1986), have reached their peak. The social comparison theory is based on the fact that individuals are willing to both perceive and present themselves in a socially desirable light. Two different socio-psychological mechanisms within this theory have been employed to explain group polarization. The first, called pluralistic ignorance (Levinger & Schneider, 1969, Pruitt, 1971, Schroeder. 1973; cited in Isenberg, 1986), holds that individuals’ choices are the result of a compromise between one’s own ideas and willingness not to deviate too much from what they believe is the central tendency of the group. In most groups, there is a lack of accurate information about the actual beliefs of the majority, thus overall polarization takes place. Coming back to the example of a moderately pro-feminist group, individual members might believe there is a strong feminist consensus existing in the group and adjust their decision accordingly to achieve conformity, while in reality feminist sentiment on individual level is weaker than it is thought to be.

The second mechanism, called one-upmanship or bandwagon effect, implies that individuals are willing to present themselves in a favorable light but also as different from other group members. As Brown (1974) famously put it, “[t]o be virtuous, in any of an indefinite number of dimensions, is to be different from the mean – in the right direction and to the right degree” (p. 469). Turing to the example of a moderately pro-feminist group again, advocates of this mechanism would argue that each group member would be willing to present himself or herself as slightly more feminist than average, guided by the belief that feminist attitude is a socially desirable value in the group.

The major criticism of the social comparison theory is that it does not explain why groups sometimes arrive at decisions that are more moderate than those taken by their members alone. The persuasive arguments theory has succeeded in explaining choice shifts happening in both directions, i.e. polarizing and depolarizing choice shifts. The theory holds that individuals’ choices are formulated on the basis of the number and persuasiveness of pro and con arguments people have in their memory at the time of the decision, and group discussion can influence members’ choices by exposing them to persuasive arguments favoring either option.

Awareness of the phenomenon of group polarization can be very beneficial for group leaders and managers. Sia, Tan and Wei (2002) bring several examples from previous research about polarization’s adverse effects in such fields as business, social cohesion, and foreign policy. Examples include escalation of the Vietnam War by the Johnson administration (McCauley 1989), race riots in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination (Riley and Pettigrew 1976), risk taking at NASA that culminated in the Challenger disaster (Janis 1989), gang crime (Cartwright 1975) and increasing investment in failing businesses (Brockner 1992, Whyte 1993).

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