Cognitive Responses in Persuasion

By Richard E. Petty; Thomas M. Ostrom et al. | Go to book overview

9
Attitude Polarization in Groups

Eugene Burnstein Keith Sentis University of Michigan


INTRODUCTION

Why would Senator Goldwater have beseeched us: "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice!"? One conjecture is that this cri de coeur arose from the belated recognition of a common belief that people whose attitudes tend toward the farthest limit are unsound. After all, the balanced mind is supposed to carefully appraise ideas before uttering them. Appreciating this, the ambitious politician of overweening principle and uninhibited tongue must combat the inference in the mind of the electorate that extremism is a disqualification for high office. Whether or not people do in fact equate moderation with sound thinking, there is rather good empirical evidence that in groups, they often exert a moderating influence on extreme members. Group members taking fringe positions are usually persuaded (or at least act as though they are persuaded) to the majority position.

A notorious example of this phenomenon is the process by which President Kennedy and his closest advisers decided to attack Cuba at the Bay of Pigs: The invasion force of 1,400 daring exiles was completely wiped out in three days. Here we have a group of very intelligent and sophisticated individuals making an ignominious or, at best, a very unwise decision. President Kennedy put the question aptly, "How could we have been so stupid?" The process leading up to the decision to invade has been labeled groupthink by Janis ( 1972). The term is appropriately Orwellian, referring as it does to a set of techniques that still individual disagreement and amplify consensus. For example, at the beginning of their deliberations, the advisory group adopted the rather simple procedural rule that decisions were to be unanimous. In retrospect this turned out to be an

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