Group polarization

This week’s ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’ class will look at group dynamics, in other words how being in a group affects behaviour. The phenomenon of ‘groupthink’ is well known, and its effects on foreign policy have been extensively covered elsewhere, so instead in this post I will focus on a less well known phenomenon – group polarization.

Group polarization refers to the tendency of groups to move towards extremes. At the end of a discussion, group members will probably adopt a more extreme decision than that which they were inclined towards at the beginning. If at the start they were inclined to take a risk, they will be even more inclined to do so at the end; if instead, they were initially inclined to be cautious, they will end up even more cautious. In other words, groups tend to accentuate the existing dispositions of their members.

There are a couple of explanations for this. The first is that people want to fit into the group, and so adopt what they perceive to be the prevailing attitude. As more and more group members do so, the group as a whole becomes more extreme. The second explanation is that as people hear more and more arguments in favour of a certain position, they become more and more convinced of its correctness, as a result of which attitudes harden.

Let us apply this to relations between Russia and the West. Russia is an individual nation. Group polarization does not apply to it. But the West is a group, normally represented by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). We should expect group polarization to apply to both NATO and the EU in their relations to Russia. It seems reasonable to suppose that at the start of the current crisis in Ukraine, the majority of members of both organizations viewed Russia’s involvement in Ukraine negatively. Given this initial inclination, group polarization would probably have pushed both NATO and the EU to take an even harder line against Russia than the individual member states would have taken if left to their own devices. The existence of NATO and the EU has thus probably exacerbated East-West relations.

Does that mean that Russia should try and avoid dealing with NATO and the EU and instead try to deal with Western nations bilaterally? In the current situation, the answer is yes. Russia will do better by speaking to France and Germany individually than it will by speaking to NATO or the EU. The format of the Minsk negotiations, which included Russia, France, Germany, and Ukraine, are therefore advantageous to Russia compared to some format which might see NATO or the EU involved. This is true, however, only as long as the initial inclinations of Western states towards Russia are negative. Should those inclinations shift in a positive direction, group polarization could push NATO and the EU even more positively inclined towards Russia than individual members were. At that point, it would make sense for Russia to deal with the organizations rather than with their member states. There is little immediate prospect of that, however.

 

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