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The Effects of Social Influence and Group Polarization on Political Messaging

Group of people being influence by a person where the shadows show the strings attached

People are social animals. We need to form groups to survive. But being in groups sometimes works against us. Social influence and group polarization are two psychological dynamics that sometimes lead to increased social and political division.

Social Influence

Social influence describes how people’s opinions and behaviors are affected by one another in a group setting. They often change to conform with group norms.

There is good reason for this. Since we need groups for our physical and emotional security, being excluded from them is frightening in a very instinctual way.

Some social scientists compare the discomfort of exclusion to physical pain; most people do whatever they can to avoid it. They are even willing to deny their perceptions. One experiment showed that when participants were asked to match black lines by length (a relatively simple task), a majority gave an incorrect answer when other group members did so too.

Social Influence in Political Discourse

Social influence impacts political discourse and preferences.

It can make it more difficult for people to voice their true views of an issue. When a group is more homogenous in its views, people are less likely to voice dissenting opinions.

This has the effect of stifling debate, making discussions on politics seem black and white. As a result, people with divergent opinions often publicly agree (and privately disagree) or internalize the group’s beliefs.

Unfortunately, losing diversity of thought comes at a cost. It is usually divergent ideas that can bring fresh perspective or even new solutions to a group’s awareness.

Since people often internalize a group’s opinions, social influence affects how they vote. Research has shown that diversity in political opinion among friends can become reduced by 30% in just six months.

Today, political views in America are divided along geographical lines. A recent study found that 98%-99% of Americans live in highly partisan areas. People living in big cities are most likely to be surrounded by Democrats. People in rural areas mostly live among Republicans.

Since social groups influence people’s political views, this isn’t surprising. If you live near Democrats, your friends will be Democrats, and you are more likely to be a Democrat too.

Politicians and Social Influence

Political leaders are not immune to social influence. They are frequently required to toe the party line and vote according to group consensus, not necessarily their private beliefs.

Politicians also use social influence to gain support. Many campaign advertisements show huge groups of people cheering on a candidate. This gives social proof the candidate is worthy of support.

Political leaders also use their authority to influence people to conform. In speeches like this one given by President Trump, they frequently use the word “we.” This places leaders in a group with their supporters, and is flattering to their audience. But it also places an obligation on people to conform with the leader’s opinions, since the politician in this case has added authority. Many leaders also vilify people who hold different beliefs. This can serve as a warning. If you think what the “bad people” think, you too could be the target of derision.

Group Polarization

Majority group opinions often become increasingly polarized. Psychological research has found views typically trend towards either becoming riskier or more cautious.

Group polarization has also been associated with riskier decision-making. Studies on gambling and investment decisions have found that people tend to make more daring choices in a group than they do privately.

There are a few different theories on why group polarization happens.

  • The change in beliefs reflects the composition of the group. If a majority has more extreme views, group opinion will shift in that direction.

  • Some group members make persuasive arguments for a certain viewpoint.

  • People hold extreme views privately and find likeminded individuals in the group. Once these opinions are voiced, the majority group opinion becomes more extreme.

  • People predict what the majority opinions are and change their beliefs to match.

Group Polarization in Politics

These dynamics can also be found in politics.

Views in both the Republican and Democratic party have moved away from the center and more towards the extremes of either group.

This could be due to any of the factors discussed above such as group composition, persuasive arguments, etc. Many people blame social media. There is evidence that social media encourages group polarization due to the power of influencers.

Of course, this impacts voter behavior. If people hold more extreme views (either preferring safety or risk), they are likely to support more extreme candidates. It’s possible that group polarization led Republicans to support President Trump (a relatively risky choice) and Democrats to prefer President Biden (a relatively safe choice).

However, group polarization isn’t always negative. Some research shows it can make people more politically engaged.

Since politicians make decisions in groups, it’s likely that group polarization impacts their decision-making too. Group polarization may cause them to take bigger risks than they would individually.

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Social Influence and Group Polarization in Action

Social influence and group polarization are not discrete categories, they overlap. You could say that group polarization is one consequence of social influence.

Together, both dynamics cause people to be influenced by peers. Both dynamics can create increased division and a lack of diversity in political debate. Social influence stops people from speaking up and group polarization leads views away from the middle and towards the extreme.

However, social influence and group polarization could be making people more politically engaged. A 2022 PEW Research article discussed data showing that people on the extremes of the political spectrum were most politically active (for better or worse). Protesting is a risky activity, and group polarization does increase the likelihood people will decide to participate in protests.

It is possible these dynamics contributed to the massive protests for women’s rights, Black Lives Matter, and President Trump on January 6.

On the government level, group polarization and social influence lead to increased division and fighting in government. In today’s world, it is common to see the House of Representatives held in long battles in which no one can seem to agree on anything. In January, 2023, the House was locked in its longest stalemate since the American civil war.

Overcoming Social Influence and Group Polarization

What is the cure? There are no easy answers, but some strategies may help to heal the rifts that separate people today.

According to an article in Psychology Today, the group Braver Angels is dedicated to bringing people with opposing political views together to discuss the issues.

The first strategy is obvious, mingle with people who have different viewpoints.

Next, the group uses couples counseling techniques to open neutral discussion. They advise looking for common ground by listening carefully.

Then, facilitators ask questions like, “Why are your side’s values and policies good for the country?” and “What are your reservations or concerns about your side?” This gives people an opportunity to acknowledge strengths in the other side and admit weaknesses on theirs.

Ultimately, discussions like this help people understand one another better.

On the Macro Level

On an institutional level, Congress could also do a better job of encouraging inter-party socialization and discussion. For example, political leaders used to attend orientation meetings together, but they now attend separately. And Congressional representatives used to remain in Washington when Congress was in session, which led to increased socialization between groups. Bringing these practices back could go a long way towards reducing polarization.

Ending practices like gerrymandering (which involves politicians redrawing the boundaries of electoral districts to get more votes) could also be helpful.

The public can also play a role by letting their representatives know if they find the current polarization in politics disturbing. Some politicians believe they will be voted out of office if they are seen consorting with members of the opposite party. Knowing there are people out there who encourage cooperation between groups may help to encourage change.

The Takeaway

Social influence causes people to conform with group opinions for various reasons. Group polarization is the tendency for groups to become more extreme in their views and more willing to take risks.

Although there are positive sides to these dynamics including increased cooperation within groups, they can also cause groups to become too extreme in their views. Decisions made in polarized groups can also be overly risky.

We are seeing these dynamics play out in an increasingly polarized political world. Many people are tired of all the division and ready for something new.

But change is possible. By rethinking how we have political conversations (and who we have them with) and encouraging our leaders to cooperate, we may begin to bridge the gaps that divide us.

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