Polarization Of Groups Never Ends Well

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We live in remarkable and challenging times with such polarization of groups. Sadly, extreme divisiveness seems everywhere. While polarization based on contemporary politics gets most of the media attention, it is just the tip of the iceberg. Divisiveness and polarization based on gender, race, ethnicity, immigration and citizenship status, socioeconomic level, education, geographical and sexual identities, and so forth round out the numerous ways that our community, nation, and world seems so hopelessly divided now. History, as well as research in psychology and related fields, informs us that this state of affairs never ends very well for a wide variety of reasons. So, we need to be hypervigilant and fight against divisiveness and polarization as much as we possibly can. And everyone can do their part. 

First, realistic conflict theory research well informs us that it is very easy to get polarized. Classic experiments in social psychology, such as the Robbers Cave study by Sherif, and others have revealed that random assignments into competing groups can lead to extreme polarization, divisiveness, as well as in-group versus out-group aggression and conflict. When you add frustration associated with perceived limited resources as well as fear these tendencies become even more intense and thus much more destructive.

Second, the way that we interact with mass and social media today highlights the “if it bleeds, it leads” approach to news consumption. In other words, the most extreme and egregious behavior gets highlighted and repeated in the press while really good behavior generally gets ignored. This then creates a false sense of normalcy in terms of what is and is not typical, appropriate, and even what is expected behavior.

Third, observational learning as well as social comparison theory and research informs us that we tend to observe the behavior of others around us and then judge and adjust our own behavior accordingly. So, if we see aggressive, violent, and extreme behavior via various media outlets we may be more likely to behave in a similar manner since it gets normalized, modeled, and even encouraged in repeated media presentations.

Fourth, research on inter-group conflict has highlighted the notion that perceived sacred values, places, people, or things (e.g., sacred scriptures, religious pilgrimage sites, spiritual leaders, flags, special statues) when desecrated by others results in perceived justified rage and violence among those who consider these images, places, monuments, or people sacred. This is why, for example, people can seem to go wild over statues or flags being removed as we saw at  the University of Virginia in August, 2017 and elsewhere in recent times. 

Sadly, we too often fail to remember that any kind of “us versus them” attitude really never ends very well. We must constantly remind ourselves that we are all in this together and are more alike than not. We typically want the same things in life and have the same worries and concerns. Harboring anger, bitterness, and resentment towards others not only feels awful over time but is destructive to our mental and physical health and well-being too.  For example, the most predictive element of the relationship between personality and heart disease in the coronary prone behavior pattern is hostility! In a nutshell, anger and hostility kills self and others. And think about it…do you ever enjoy being around people who are angry, bitter, resentful, and violent?  Do angry and hostile people enhance relationships or do they hinder them? Are angry and hostile people ever happy being so? Do angry and hostile people sleep well or not? 

Perhaps all of us have a dark and light side as many innovators in psychology, such as Carol Jung, have well highlighted. There are ways that we can nurture both our worst and our best human tendencies. We can easily be inspired to hate or to love others and then act accordingly. While it is certainly easier said than done, if we proactively and vigilantly work to highlight commonalities among others (even those who we don’t like so much) and try our best to avoid divisiveness and polarization we would all be better off…a lot better off!  Respect and compassion, for example, go a very long way in terms of getting people with diverse views and perspectives to get along better. Putting yourself in the shoes of others does too. We should all try it as much as we can. Our very survival may depend on it. 

And besides, as my great aunt Margaret used to frequently say, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” In other words, being nice to others is a lot better than being nasty…and it gets you further too!  

So, what do you think?

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Copyright 2017, Thomas G, Plante, PhD, ABPP



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