How did you feel this past weekend (Friday to Sunday) about the events taking place in Charlottesville Virginia? Did you watch the events? Did you follow the events online? Although it is the home of the University of Virginia, it became the home of pure racial tension, ignorance, and extreme identity fusion between the members of the group. In psychology, this is regarded as group polarization and group think.
This article will briefly discuss the confused thought processes of individuals who become the victims of extreme and radical belief systems that divide and strive to conquer.
While studying psychology and sociology about 10 years ago as a college student, I learned about the concepts of group polarization and group-think. Group polarization is the tendency of a group of people (who tend to think similarly to each other) to make extreme decisions on the basis of the influence of the group and not on the basis of their own thoughts or beliefs. In other words, group polarization causes members of a group to make extreme decisions because of the influence of the group which is more drastic and extreme than the decisions they would make on their own. It’s as if the individual group member feels more empowered, supported, or “protected” making extreme decisions within a group. If they were outside of the group, they would most likely shy away from extreme views and beliefs for fear of backlash, legal trouble, and societal pressure.
Group think is a similar concept but slightly different. It is a powerful form of emotional and psychological contagion that influences others within the group. It creates a “we” vs “them” mentality based on the collective energies of everyone within the group. Everyone within the group begins to take on the belief systems and attitudes of everyone within the group. There is no individuality.
Michael Bond wrote the interesting book The Power of Others which focuses on the influence that groups can have on individuals who may not have similar beliefs to the group when outside of the group. I had the opportunity of completing a book review for this book back in 2016. One of the important concepts I discussed was the power of collective energy within a group. When a group is powerful and standing for important values that affect the lives of many within a society, the collective energies of the members can truly impact change. But when collective energies are negative, prejudiced, discriminatory, or maintain an uninformed perspective, widespread damage is likely to occur. But allow me to mention that even though rallies or events from negative groups harm everyone involved, there is a powerful and positive ending when such groups trigger people with firm values and higher knowledge to “fight back.” That “fighting back” includes undermining, detracting from, and reducing the uninformed messages of the group polarization and group think of nationalist groups.
While studying and researching the effects of group think and group polarization in college years ago, I learned about the predictable patterns of behavior that individuals within a group exhibit if psychologically and emotionally influenced. Some of the signs of group think and group polarization include:
- Losing individual identity: Mirroring is a psychological concept that has been studied for years in research on human behavior and human development. Mirroring is the process by which two people begin to “copy” or immolate the body language of the other individual around them. For example, when two people are in a meeting at work, you may notice one individual sitting a certain way and the other individual eventually sitting the same way as well. There also seems to be an emotional (and certainly a neuro-biological) component to mirroring as well. You may find two people in a romantic relationship, twins, or two siblings mirroring body language and even attitude. In group where group think and group polarization may be occurring, you will see an individual lose their individual identity for the identity of the group. Jim Jones’s cult is a prime example of this. He not only influenced a large group of individuals to believe as he did, but also influenced their actions in such a way that each individual lost their identity.
- Believing in the group leader(s) as one would religion: Jim Jones became almost like a “father” to those he influenced to follow him. He had a certain degree of power over those who followed him. This power was so strong that each individual found it nearly impossible to escape the group or survive outside of it.
- Developing an “us” against “them” mentality: An “us” vs “them” mentality is often developed when the collective energies of a group creates some kind of emotional and psychological bond. This “bond” creates a relationship that causes group members to take on the attitude of superiority over others. A minor example of this would be sports teams. Sports teams take on a “we” vs “them” mentality in order to create team camaraderie and team spirit. During a very competitive basketball game you may see individual players engage in uncharacteristic behaviors on behalf of their team. Some individuals may “turn” into very competitive, uncaring, and rude individuals. Outside of their team, they may be very loving and caring people.
- Fusion of emotions, thought patterns, and behaviors: The Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist who is well known for studying social behavior, was an interesting experiment. His experiment demonstrated the powerful influence of groups on the minds, emotions, and behaviors of other people. The prison environment had a very strong influence on the inmates and even the guards. He sought to understand the psychological foundation of the cruelty often experienced in prison environments. His question was: Is there a situational influence? Perhaps. Zimbardo argued that the prison environment itself was more of an influence over behavior than the dispositions (i.e., personality traits) of those within the prison. He aimed to show how the taking social roles would lead to excessive conformity within society of those roles. The simple role of being a prison guard may change the ways in which the guard communicates with the inmates. Outside of that role, the prison guard may be different in how he behaves. If we take the results of Zimbardo’s study and apply to the events in Charlottesville West Virginia, the results may be the same. The fact that the members of the nationalist groups conformed to their roles within the group may explain why there are thousands of people quite okay existing within these roles. There seems to be a lack of consciousness or self-awareness of the callousness of their position within society. Although the validity of this experiment is often critiqued, it still lends a perspective that is worth us considering.
- Stockholm syndrome: Stockholm syndrome is basically an alliance that an individual develops with another individual in order to survive a traumatic situation. It is the process by which an individual, in a compromised position or traumatic relationship, builds a kind of emotional and psychological bond to the evil person which causes the individual to lose their ability to be objective. In other words, the individual begins to build feelings of affection and trust toward the abusive individual who has harmed them. Individuals within nationalist groups may experience a form of this. In some ways, this term is similar to the following term.
- Traumatic bonding: Traumatic bonding occurs when an individual, who has been traumatized by someone in their life, begins to experience alternating periods of positivity and negativity from the person who traumatized them. This “bonding” creates emotions that make it difficult for the victim to escape the powerful attachment. For example, an alcoholic parent who has sexually and physically abused their daughter may exhibit love and affection toward the daughter at some times and disapproval or neglect at other times. Because of these alternating moods and behaviors, the abused child becomes confused and begins to build an emotional bond that makes objectivity difficult. This abused child may feel the need to protect, love, and support their abuser because they have a difficult time “ignoring” or forgetting about the positive moments they shared with the abuser. Because of this, the abused child may feel compelled to care for the abuser, protect and love them, support and even cover for them. It’s a traumatic experience in and of itself because the child loses the ability to protect and save themselves because of an emotional bond too powerful for them to overcome on their own. Individual group members may experience a form of traumatic bonding, making it very difficult for them to escape the ignorant viewpoints of the abusive leader.
- “Shared Psychosis:” Shared psychosis is an interesting topic. For many people, the term itself is interesting. In the most recent version of the DSM (DSM-V), shared psychosis was removed as a single disorder and placed under the umbrella of “other specified schizophrenic spectrum and other psychotic disorders.” It describes an individual (who is psychotic) and is or her influence over others in their environment. In other words, the psychotic person has such strong beliefs (and may be dominant in the relationship) that their psychotic beliefs begin to cause others within their environment to adopt the same views. There has to be, however, an emotional or psychological bond and relationship of some kind in order for this to occur. It is said to be a rare delusional disorder often experienced within a family or a group.
What has been your experience with group think or group polarization? Have you witnessed its affects on others in your own life? As always, I look forward to your thoughts and experiences.
All the best