The Pleasures and Perils of Fighting Among Ourselves

A polarized group becomes less effective as its members become more certain
By Susan Kolod, Ph.D

Polarization occurs when people on either side of a conflict take increasingly extreme opposing positions. A new Pew Research study demonstrates polarization is at an all-time high in American politics.  Striking examples of polarization are evident internationally as well. Many groups define themselves as having a common enemy—there is agreement that those who hold the opposing view are wrong. This draws people together and engenders feelings of righteousness, virtue, clarity and certainty. Ambiguity is banished.However, polarization has very very bad consequences.The Bad NewsAs a consequence of polarization, trust and respect for the “other” group diminishes, while distorted perceptions and stereotypes emerge. Negative qualities are attributed to individuals in the opposing group, while members of one’s own camp are viewed as positive and virtuous. The disagreeing parties assume more and more rigid positions and may refuse to negotiate. Those who try to take more moderate positions are sometimes viewed as “traitors.”People are often quick to recognize and loathe qualities in others that they find repugnant in themselves–such as greed, desire for power or hypocrisy.  When groups become polarized questionable behavior, which is typically evident in both groups, is only recognized in members of the opposing group, who are then identified as bad or evil.Polarization depletes creativity and saps a group of its energy. People exclude and marginalize one another. Although this can create a feeling of safety in the short run, over time, the group loses the vitality and “cutting edge” that come with collaboration.An Example of Polarization

A synagogue in a small Midwestern city became polarized when the rabbi refused to perform same-sex marriages. The rabbi is a very intelligent, kind and perceptive person. However, he is quite conservative and unbending on certain issues.  The executive council of the synagogue was divided on the issue of same-sex marriage, but the rabbi made it clear that on this issue he would not budge.

The congregation is a diverse group of individuals who run the gamut from very conservative to very liberal. Although there is a fair amount of disagreement, people in general respect one another and there is a high level of tolerance towards ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty. However, the issue of same-sex marriage divided the congregation into two camps—“for” and “against.”

The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The regrettable wisdom of this proverb was manifested in the congregation as it became ever more polarized:

  1. People who had not been close previously began to bond with each other and against the other side.
  2. If they had opposing views, people who had been friends broke off relations.
  3. Each side accused the other of ill-intentioned behavior, but did not recognize it in themselves.
  4. Energy, enthusiasm and a sense of belonging to a single cohesive group were eroded.
  5. Both groups felt disrespected and maligned by one another.
  6. The atmosphere of fear and anxiety spread to other issues.

What Causes Polarization?

Kenneth Eisold, Ph.D., author of What You Don’t Know You Know: Our Hidden Motives in Life, Business and Everything Else, is apsychoanalyst and Faculty member at the William Alanson White Institute. One of Eisold’s specialties is consultation with polarized organizations (like businesses and charities)—he helps them reestablish a collaborative atmosphere.

Eisold emphasizes that polarization is a normal process–it often develops when people become overwhelmed with complexity and uncertainty. He notes that individuals within a polarized group think in terms such as, “I know where I stand and what I feel.” This is very satisfying when the group has just gone through a period of intense stress and confusion.

What Can Be Done?

Eisold emphasizes that working with polarized organizations is tricky: “Timing is key. When a group is in the midst of polarization, they need the simple clear version of events…they lose ability to listen to the views of the other. There is no point in trying to intervene while a group is in the midst of intense polarization.  But once a group reaches a point where they are asking for help, something can be done.”

When that occurs, Eisold uses various techniques to help the two groups come to a more moderate position, such as asking members of each group if there was a time when members of the “other” group were seen as having positive qualities. Such reflection often catalyzes a shift back to tolerance and unity.  Having members of opposing groups work together on specific projects with a common aim is an effective way to bring people back together, enlivening their interactions and recapturing the energy of cooperation.
Susan Kolod, Ph.D., is a Supervising and Training Analyst and co-Editor of the blog, Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action at the William Alanson White Institute. She has lectured and written about the impact of hormones on the psyche with a particular focus on sexuality, menopause and the menstrual cycle. She is in private practice in Brooklyn and Manhattan.