|Posted on May 4, 2011 at 11:50 PM|
The reasoning and decision-making process of an individual is altered, sometimes dramatically, when played out within the context of a group discussion. Social dynamics, such as firm leadership, minority or dissenting opinion, and the pressures of conformity, all play a role in determining the outcome of people’s choices. “Group polarisation” occurs when a dominant point of view is reinforced through conformity, and opposing views are ignored or suppressed. This process often leads the group to determine a more extreme position than would otherwise be made by individual rationale. Conversely, group polarisation can allow for more robust discussion, and a broader exchange of ideas and perspectives than would otherwise have been considered by an individual.
A study conducted at the University of Hong Kong explored the effects of computer-mediation on group discussions, and its association with group polarisation. Sia, Tan and Wei (2002) carried out two experiments, the first testing the impact of removing verbal and visual cues from an identifiable setting during discussion, and the second examined the provision of anonymity and reduced social presence. Results indicated that when discussing through computer messaging systems, participants had a reduced social presence and were more likely to present polarising arguments and engage in one-upmanship with other discussants. Group polarisation was even more pronounced when participants were anonymous in the computer-mediated discussions. The study outlined the significance of social presence in group discussions, and concluded that while group polarisation increased, participants were less likely to bow to conformist opinion, since their presence or identity was shielded by a computer screen. While this approach may foster more even-handed discussions, with participant’s able to stand firmer on their positions, anonymity does tend to foster hyperbolic statements and competitive, anti-social behaviour, which detract from the tenor and rationality of the decision-making process.
Straus, Parker & Bruce (2011) examined the nature of group polarisation within the intelligence analyst community. Traditionally, intelligence data has been dissected on an individual basis, but recent trends illustrate experts and policymakers relying on team-based exercises. Their studies found that pressures towards uniformity existed within such discussions, overconfidence leading to errors and missed data, and productivity lost in brainstorming activities. The conclusion of the study was critical of group polarisation within intelligence teams, as it tended to exert responsibility away from the individual, and not being dividing evenly among the team. It is an example of group context having a negative impact on accuracy and confidence.
A study conducted by the University of Iowa challenged the assumption that group polarisation occurred as a result of individuals attempting to differentiate themselves from outsider or “outgroup” positions. Krizan and Baron (2007) conducted an experiment in which participants were made to discuss moral dilemmas, with and without information on outgroup positions. The study found that this manipulation of information did not affect the degree of group polarisation, and participants displayed evidence of “ingroup” identification. Krizan and Bron concluded that the study refuted the notion that people categorised themselves as conforming to a group mentality.
On average, groups make more accurate judgments than individuals, and exert a higher level of confidence in doing so. Group polarisation draws on the diverse knowledge and experiences of a range of people, and helps individuals approach problems and decisions from different and sometimes more informed perspectives. Robust discussion may unearth aspects of an issue that an individual may not have even considered, and allows for a range of arguments to be given ample deliberation (Krizan & Baron, 2007). This is, of course, how group problems would be dealt with in an ideal world. Often, however, dominating personalities tend to sway the groups thought process to his or her point of view, and dissenting voices are humbled by a shared desire for agreement and courtesy. Likewise, “groupthink” reveals tendencies for close-knit groups to emphasise consensus by focusing selectively on information which supports the conforming opinion, and suppressing external information which challenges it. Groupthink often deprives the group of critical thinking and rational decision-making, again leading to extremist or risky resolutions, than would otherwise be made by an individual. Such processes can often be observed in political or religious discussions, in which members of a party or faith will reinforce each others views, while at the same time dismissing or ignoring external arguments against their position.