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Going To Extremes

Cass R. Sunstein is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University and the author of many books, the most recent being Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and DivideSunstein presents evidence that shows that when like-minded people talk to one another, they tend to become more extreme in their views than they were before.  He offers a path forward that can help us halt the drift tward unjustified extremism and broaden civic engagement in the public sphere.  In the excerpt below we learn about group polarization.

When people talk together, what happens?  Do group members compromise?  Do they move toward the middle of the tendencies of their individual members?  The answer is now clear, and it is not what intuition would suggest:  Groups go to extremes.  More precisely, members of a deliberating group usually end up at a more extreme position in the same general direction as their inclinations before deliberation began.

This is the phenomenon known as group polarization.  Group polarization is the typical pattern with deliberating groups.  It is not limited to particular periods, nations, or cultures.  On the contrary, group polarization has been found in hundreds of studies involving more than a dozen countries, including the United States, France, Afghanistan, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Germany.  It provides a clue to extremism of many different kinds.

Consider four examples:

1. White people who tend to show significant racial prejudice will show more racial prejudice after speaking with one another.  By contrast, white people who tend to show little racial prejudice will show less prejudice after speaking with one another.

2. Feminism becomes more attractive to women after they talk to one another – at least if the women who are talking begin with an inclination in favor of feminism.

3. Those who approve of an ongoing war effort, and think that the war is going well, become still more enthusiastic about that effort, and still more optimistic, after they talk together.

4. If investors begin with the belief that it is always best to invest in real estate, their eagerness to invest in real estate will grow as a result of discussions with one another.

In these and countless other cases, like-minded people tend to move to a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk.  Suppose in this light that enclaves of people are inclined to rebellion or even violence and that they are separated from other groups.  They might move sharply in the direction of violence as a consequence of their self-segregation.  Political extremism is often a product of group polarization, and social segregation is a useful tool for producing polarization.

In fact, a good way to create an extremist group, or a cult of any kind, is to separate members from the rest of society.  The separation can occur physically or psychologically, by creating a sense of suspicion about nonmembers.  With such separation, the information and views of those outside the group can be discredited, and hence nothing will disturb the process of polarization as group members continue to talk.  Deliberating enclaves of like-minded people are often a breeding ground for extreme movements.  Terrorists are made, not born, and terrorist networks often operate in just this way.  As a result, they can move otherwise ordinary people to violent acts.  But the point goes well beyond such domains.  Group polarization occurs in our daily lives; it involves our economic decisions, our evaluations of our neighbors, even our decisions about what to eat, what to drink, and where to live…

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