These biases can prevent us from looking at situations objectively and often lead us to positions that do not reflect a majority view. In studies involving group deliberations, like-minded individuals regularly move toward a more extreme viewpoint. “Like polarized molecules, group members become more aligned in the direction they were already tending.” This results in groups of like-minded individuals favoring a more extreme position than the members expressed upon joining the group.
The adverse consequences of this group tendency are evident in the increasing polarization of the nation’s political parties and our representative government. A study entitled Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence of Group Polarization found that the hostility across party lines is so powerful that it leads partisans to discriminate against the opposition to a degree that exceeds discrimination based on race. Hostility for the opposition party among rank-and-file partisans sends a clear signal to representatives from safe districts that they need not work across party lines. A review of Congressional press statements of representatives from safe seats showed frequent use of exaggerated language that bashes the opposition and devalues their ideas. The study concluded that the levels of animosity that exist within the base of each party provide incentives for representatives to engage in confrontation rather than cooperation.
As Walt Kelly’s character Pogo once said “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Since our human nature and emotions wire us to speak before we think and even when shown what we claim is false, we continue to believeotherwise, is there anyway out of this downward spiral?
There is hope. The studies on group polarization reveal that depolarization occurs when groups consist of individuals drawn equally from two extremes. In addition, group deliberation studies show that better decisions are reached when leaders require members to exercise independence and to consider information counter to the prevailing view. Finally, when people are respectful, fair and friendly to all, even when they have great differences, history demonstrates that we have achieved some of our best deliberative efforts.