This is a guest post by Anuschka Rees. Anuschka is a post-graduate at the London School of Economics studying Psychology. Check out her blog, Into Mind.
Since I started studying Psychology more than 4 years ago, I’ve come across tons of different theories. But, there is only one that had a huge impact on me: the theory of thought polarization.
This theory describes how opinions diverge over time. Applying it to your relationships, whether it be with a boyfriend or a family member or a friend, can save you from many pointless arguments in the future.
What exactly is thought polarization?
Thought polarization occurs when two people reach a topic on which they disagree on, but only slightly. The longer they keep talking about it, the more they will disagree. “I don’t quite like xyz as much as you do, I’m pretty neutral towards it actually” can quickly turn into “Oh my God, I hate xyz, I cannot believe you adore xyz like that. You must be totally [insert insulting adjective]!!!”
Try to spot this pattern in everyday conversations. You will be amazed how common it is and how many arguments are based on this theory.
But, why do our opinions escalate like that?
Differences in opinion tend to get exaggerated. This happens because of the confirmation bias: once we have made up our mind about something, we tend to search for things that prove our initial opinion. All humans have this cognitive bias.
But, why? Well, from an evolutionary perspective it’s pretty costly to change your opinion constantly: you would never get anything done. Also, consistency is a highly valued trait in our modern society, a lack thereof makes a person come off as fickle, confused, irrational and two-faced.
Being consistent has more benefits in the long-term for these reasons, which is why we are programmed to aim for consistency.
Yeah, but how does the confirmation bias lead to thought polarization?
Say you dislike something a little, teeny, tiny bit. Perhaps it’s a celebrity like Lady Gaga. You know the person you are talking to likes her somewhat, but you aren’t “gaga” about her yourself.
Whenever you’re expressing an opinion the other person disagrees with, you are prompted to explain yourself, so naturally, your friend asks “why?”
So, you search for negative things to say about Lady Gaga, and the other person will do the same in the other direction. For every positive thing they find, you find another negative thing, because you want to be consistent in your opinion.
Consider all the negative things about Lady Gaga that will be floating around in your head after a while: no wonder your opinion of her gets lower and lower. So actually, whenever thought polarization happens, it is not really about two people fighting to be right. It happens because both of you are desperately trying to maintain a consistent opinion on the topic.
So, how can you avoid pointless fights caused by thought polarization?
The key is to evaluate your own thought process.
First, realize that you are in a situation that could potentially lead to your opinions escalating.
Then, stop trying to prove your opinion! Especially if it wasn’t a particularly extreme one in the first place. If it is only slightly more positive or negative than neutral, you and your partner’s opinion are likely to be very close anyway.
Have you ever noticed thought polarization occurring in the arguments you have with loved ones? Will you be trying to reevaluate your own thought process? Let us know in a comment!
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