In American politics we often complain about the polarization of ideas amongst politicians and their lack of ability to accomplish anything. Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds examines the behavior of individuals relative to the behavior of groups, and what he presents is an explanation for our government’s fractured state. In regards to decision making Wiseman writes, “being in a group exaggerates people’s opinions, causing them to make more a extreme decision than they would on their own.” He explains an experiment by James Stoner in which an individual was asked to consult a mildly successful author about whether or not they should stop writing cheap thrillers and take a risk by writing a larger novel that is outside of the typical genre in which she publishes. Individuals were less likely to recommend that she strive towards the risky novel than groups were.
Wiseman’s conclusion is that the groups we belong to push us further in whatever direction we already lean. In the example from Wiseman’s book, if we tend to be slightly more risky, then in a group we become much more risky. This explanation of our behavior translates nicely to our political system. I studied political science in college and I remember discussing the impact of party leadership on Congress. What studies had shown is that the longer a politician serves in Congress and the more they become part of party leadership, the less likely they are to vote along the lines of what their constituents actually want. Part of the explanation for this behavior could be related to Wiseman’s findings of group behavior pushing an individual to more extreme ideas. The more control party leaders have over the other members of congress, the more they are likely to shape their decisions, and the longer an individual is in Congress, the more likely their decisions will become polarized. I think that Wiseman’s understanding of group decisions versus individual decisions does an excellent job breaking down part of our government’s breakdown.
On a personal scale I think it is important to be aware of the impact that groups will have on us. Building our ideas in a group, as opposed to individual study and idea formation, may mean that we adopt more extreme ideas on a given topic. In addition, when trying to brainstorm ideas, Stoner’s research shows us that groups will push us towards decisions and ideas that are more extreme than those we would find on our own. I think this also translates into the ways we act and think about everyday topics. Groups may be much more likely to push us towards having more extreme opinions about other people, act in more polarized ways toward others, and make us think in a different way about social issues and occurrences. If you are building your self awareness, recognizing the impact of groups on your thoughts and opinions is crucial.