Extremism at McCain Rallies Comes Naturally

Where you live, how you vote.
Oct. 13 2008 8:50 AM

Extremism at McCain Rallies Comes Naturally

French students who disliked America (and loved Charles de Gaulle) were once asked to talk about the United States for an hour or two. At the end of the session, conducted as part of experiments in the 1960s, the students disliked America and loved de Gaulle even more.

College kids who join a conservative fraternity move to the right during their four years in college. Liberals from Boulder asked to discuss some issues of the day, such as global warming and gay marriage, are more liberal at the end of their discussion than before. Racists brought into a room to discuss race grow more intolerant.

Social psychologists have conducted scores of these "group polarization" experiments since the '60s, and they all come to the same finding: Like-minded people in a group grow more extreme in the way they are like-minded.

Homogeneity creates extremity or, in the news of the day, a McCain rally.

Republican rallies this past weekend grew heated. The headlines tell the story: " Anger Is Crowd's Overarching Emotion at McCain Rally "; "Panic Attack: Voters Unload at GOP Rallies "; " McCain: Obama Not an Arab, Crowd Boos "; "Supporters Jeer as McCain Calls Obama 'A Decent Person.'  "

What's going on? The talk-show talk has been that John McCain and Sarah Palin incite this kind of behavior. They certainly haven't helped, but blaming the candidates misses what's happening, and why.

Social scientists have proposed several reasons for why like-minded groups tend to polarize. Two have survived scrutiny. The first is that homogenous groups are privy to a large pool of ideas and arguments supporting the group's dominant position. Everybody hears the arguments in favor of the group's belief, and as they're discussed, people grow stouter in their beliefs.

The second reason like-minded groups polarize has more to do with how we see ourselves. We are constantly comparing our beliefs and opinions to those of the group. There are advantages to being slightly more extreme than the group average. It's a way to stand out, to ensure others will see us as righteous group members.

"It's an image-maintenance kind of thing," explained social psychologist Robert Baron. Everybody wants to be a member in good standing, and though it sounds counterintuitive, the safest way to conform is to be slightly more extreme than the average of the group.

"One way to make sure you aren't mistaken for one of those 'other people' is to be slightly ahead of the pack in terms of your Republican-ness," Baron said. "It's hard to be a moderate Republican or a moderate Democrat, in other words, because you're afraid that other people will call you whatever. In racial terms, you'd be called an Oreo if you were black." At a John McCain rally, if you say Barack Obama is a "decent family man," you are booed ... even if you're John McCain.

This is social psychology as old as the Bible. Recalling his days as a devout Jew, before his conversion to Christianity, Paul said, "Beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it." Paul realized that his extremity paid dividends, that he "profited in the Jews' religion above many of my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers." (Galatians 1:13-14)

Or, as Holly Golightly put it in Breakfast at Tiffany's , "It's useful being top banana in the shock department."

Experiments confirmed Paul's and Golightly's conclusions. "An extreme communicator on one's side of an issue tends to be perceived as more sincere and competent than a moderate," social psychologist David Myers wrote. Hello, talk radio.

Those at the McCain or Palin rallies who talk about "hooligans" and "treason," who call Barack Obama a "terrorist," "bum," or "socialist," aren't simply responding to speeches from the candidates. They are acting as members of a like-minded group exactly as social psychologists would predict, which is a less-than-comforting thought.

In his textbook on social psychology, David Myers writes, "Terrorism does not erupt suddenly. Rather, it arises among people whose shared grievances bring them together. As they interact in isolation from moderating influences, they become progressively more extreme. The social amplifier brings the signal in stronger. The result is violent acts that the individuals, apart from the group, would never have committed."

It's not just groups on the right that polarize, nor are Republicans the only people to gather in like-minded groups. For the past 30 years, Americans have been sorting themselves into politically like-minded neighborhoods, churches, and clubs. Matching like with like has been often been entirely intentional. Ministers have been taught to attract new members according to the "homogenous unit principle" of church growth. (One book in the church growth literature is titled Our Kind of People .) Subdivisions have designed for certain cultural types a Christian school in one section, a Montessori school in another.

The antidote to group polarization is mixed company. Cass Sunstein and David Schkade reviewed the rulings from three panels from the U.S. Court of Appeals. They found that when the panels consisted of all Republican or all Democratic appointees, the rulings were more extreme than when the panels had members of both parties. Mixed panels produced more moderate judgments.

The lesson is pretty clear. Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain individual excesses. Homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.

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