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.


Upcoming events

This Wednesday (4 March) I will be giving a talk at 3 pm in the Junior Common Room of Trinity College at the University of Toronto on ‘The Problem with Military Intervention: Why we shouldn’t go to war with ISIS’. Details here.

On Friday 20 March, I will be talking on ‘The Ukraine Crisis, Russia, and NATO: Military and foreign policy perspectives’ at a conference at the University of Windsor on ‘From Maidan to Donbass: The Ukraine crisis in the context of Western-Russian relations.’ The conference is in room 203 of the Toldo Health Education Centre, from 2 pm onwards.

On Friday 27 March, I shall be at Kansas State University for the conference ‘Perspectives on Modern Honor’ to present a paper entitled ‘The Honour of the Crown: The State and its Soldiers’.

I expect to be in Moscow on 21 May for a conference on ‘The Philosophy of Ivan Ilyin: Russia and the West’, speaking on ‘Representations of Ivan Ilyin in Western countries, and the problems of mutual misunderstanding of Russia and the West’.

Finally, I have accepted an invitation to speak at IdeaCity 2015 in Toronto, 17-19 June, on the subject of how the world is not becoming more dangerous.


The dangers of overcompensating

Last week I posted on the subject of media bias, and also discussed the topic with my students. After a long debate, one of my students asked what we could do about it. Not a lot, was my reply, except be aware of it and bear it in mind when forming opinions on any given topic. Then I added a caveat: don’t overcompensate and start assuming that because the media distort many issues, they distort everything and that you cannot trust anything that you watch or read. And just because you no longer believe all the propaganda produced by your own country, don’t start believing that produced by others, or turn into a conspiracy theorist. It is a short step from scepticism about Western media and governments to becoming a 9/11 truther.

What brings this to mind are the reactions this week to the murder of Russian politician Boris Nemtsov. The immediate response of many of those who dislike the prevailing negative Western narrative about Russia was to claim that the murder was a ‘false flag operation’ carried out to discredit Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and to destabilize Russia. The perpetrators, according to this version of events, might have been members of Russia’s liberal opposition or perhaps the Ukrainian secret services.

Claims of this sort are not uncommon. As I have said elsewhere, the rebels in Ukraine were most likely responsible for shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17. Similarly, I think that it is probable that it was rebel artillery which hit a civilian bus in Volnovakha on 12 January, killing about a dozen people. Neither incident, I believe, was intentional. These were probably unfortunate mistakes of war. But many of those who reject the mainstream Western narrative about the war in Ukraine disagree – these attacks, they believe, were also ‘false flags’, designed to prejudice international opinion against the rebels.

Why do people believe these things, despite the evidence to the contrary? The answer I think is that having become disgruntled with the Russophobia of the Western media, people turn to alternative news sources, such as RT (if all they speak is English), the internet, or Twitter, and instead of treating these sources with the same distrust as the Western mainstream media, instead believe every word they produce. In short, they overcompensate. Having decided, for instance, that the Western version of events in Ukraine is inaccurate, and that Russia is not entirely to blame for the conflict there, they come to believe the opposite – that Russia isn’t to blame at all, and the whole business is the product of a devilish plan hatched by the USA to weaken Russia. Believing that Western claims about Russian involvement in Ukraine are exaggerated, they preposterously insist that Russia is not involved at all – that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine and never have been.

Mark Galeotti notes that one of the problems of the current state of Russia-West relations is ‘the death of neutrality. It is increasingly difficult not to be one side or the other.’ Either you believe that Putin is an evil despot, or you believe that he represents the genuine will of the Russian people. Either Russia is an imperialist aggressor, or is itself the victim of Western aggression. Either the Russian media is a source of non-stop propaganda, or the Western media is. The possibilities that Putin is not an evil despot, but that he isn’t a liberal democrat either; that Western media are flawed, but Russia media are too; that the government in Kiev is largely to blame for the war in Ukraine, but that Russia also shares the blame; that Ukrainian artillery kills civilians, but rebel artillery does too; all these and more are ignored, as balance is abandoned in favour of simplistic partisanship. It is worth remembering that nobody has a monopoly of the truth, and nobody has a monopoly of untruth either.