Is Polarization Inevitable?

Polarization is defined as the division into two sharply contrasting groups or sets of opinions or beliefs.  

Consider that once you have taken a side there is a limit to the ability to consider evidence. Myside bias occurs when people evaluate evidence, generate evidence, and test hypotheses in a manner biased toward their own prior opinions and attitudes. [i]

Therefore, it is tricky to have a conversation about different viewpoints without differences leading to polarization. It is also hard, on the other hand, to resist jumping onto someone’s side in order to feel connected and even safe. Knowing all this, we might do well to consider the forces at work, which lead us to automatically take sides and go along with a social group. 

Questions: How does polarization occur in one’s family?  What influences us when making decisions in a group? Under what condition will we give up our own perceptions to go along with the group? What is the cost on the group’s side? Consider the automatic reactions in our brain pushing us to take sides.  If we refuse to take a side, how will the brain react?  Is the effort to be more independent and have our own ideas just too hard, emotionally? Is side taking a trait conserved by evolution so that it is hard for us to evaluate the automatic?

People tend to take sides with those who agree with them, especially when there is a rise in anxiety in the group. They split off from friendships when there is disagreement. At work people often refuse to talk about differences in their belief systems. There might be a reaction and or a price to pay.  To bring one’s differences with important others out in the open, can create anxiety. Even as a young child there is an anxious reaction when taking sides with mom against dad or vice versa. Later in life, there is the teacher or the boss whose side we may automatically take.

The problem: If we are constantly learning to take sides rather than to think for ourselves, we lose more of an accurate perception of reality.  What are the forces that push us into these alliances?

Research in this area has discovered that there are all kinds of brain states that reinforce positive and negative behaviors. Those who are willing to go along get oxytocin, making them feel great. Those who do not go along get a painful signal―“You are not in harmony with your tribe. You made a painful mistake, and you will suffer and may be ostracized.”

Is oxytocin enough of a reward for going along with others?

In many cases yes. We need to increase care and love for newborns, and most of the time oxytocin does the job. Tribes, families, teams, and churches all need true believers to get the work done. Seen that way, perhaps it is only natural that evolution favors conformity. For the sake of survival, you go along. There are rewards for getting along and being part of the great togetherness. We all form preferred biases and values. It is only natural that we are upset by those who differ from us. For hundreds of thousands of years, our brain developed choosing to go along as a more important behavior than searching for the truth in the outside world.

Many of the norms of society may seem silly, but those norms tell the brain what to do and save it from overheating. Plus, there is a kind of electric shock, an error signal, that we get when we are not following the norms of the group. One is up against brain biochemistry in being a self in a group.

Solomon Ashe’s ground-breaking research in 1951 proved how important the opinions of strangers are to one’s perception of the length of a line. In addition, a certain number of people―willing to give up self and go along with others’ judgments as to the length of the line―did not just lie.  Their perception was altered. They were delusional.

“We like to think that seeing is believing,” said Dr. Gregory Berns, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta who led the study. But the study’s findings, he said, show that seeing is believing what the group tells you to believe. [ii] The human brain is shaped by evolution and discounts reality in favor of belonging to our tribe.

The human family is a tribe where the urge to give up self to be in a group or to dominate others to manage the spread of anxiety is important to perceive. The following is a description by Murray Bowen M.D. of side-taking in families.

In our daily living experience, we all constantly participate emotionally in the life about us. We identify ourselves with the victim, we applaud the hero, and we hate the villain. A family in daily living contact with a psychotic member has a high level of anxiety and emotion. There are frequent emotional crises that portray one member as victim, another as hero, and another as villain. It is easy for the observer to become so involved in the emotion that he loses objectivity. [iii]

What does it take to be aware of these forces and to work on managing self in the emotional systems around us?

After all, belonging is important. The automatic urge to agree, to fit with others, maybe the pressure that gets us to give up self and even lie about what one really thinks and believes. Clearly giving up ones thinking self, or becoming a no-self, happens due to the emotional pressure of life. The cost can be great for not defining where one stands and what one believes.

Understanding the many ways that the brain is rigged up may give us reason to work on being less of an automatic side taker, less polarized, and more open to listening to others who are “different”― especially those who do not belong to your tribe.

Over time you may find that the shock of different viewpoints gives one a better view of the reality of a situation. Encouraging differences may be less comforting but may give better information with which to problem-solve. Or one can continue to seek agreement, love, and approval and get a small hit of oxytocin.

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 Three recommended Reading on Polarization

1)      The Bias That Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking by Keith E. Stanovich 

We are unable to agree on commonly accepted truths and facts. We believe that our side knows the truth. Post-truth? That describes the other side. The inevitable result is political polarization. Stanovich shows what science can tell us about myside bias: how common it is, how to avoid it, and what purposes it serves.

2)      Polarization and the Healthier Church by Ronald W. Richardson

Guiding church leaders, congregations, and community groups from conflict to understanding and cooperation. Once again, the application of Bowen family systems theory to the work of church leadership provides them with effective approaches to resolving divisive issues before they do irreparable damage to the church community.

3)       Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity, and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions by Todd Rose

Drawing on cutting-edge neuroscience, behavioral economics, and social psychology research, former Harvard professor and think tank founder Todd Rose reveals how so much of our thinking is informed by false assumptions that make us dangerously mistrustful as a society – and hopelessly unhappy as individuals. The desire to fit in is one of the most powerful, least understood forces in a society. Todd Rose believes that as human beings we continually act against our own best interests out of our brains’ misunderstanding of what we think others believe. A complicated set of illusions driven by conformity bias distorts how we see the world around us.


[i] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0963721413480174

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/28/science/what-other-people-say-may-change-what-you-see.html

[iii] Bowen, Murray; Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition. (location 611).