Date: 08 Mar 2014

Explaining Group Influence: The Role of Identity and Emotion in Political Conformity and Polarization

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Abstract

Evidence has accumulated that people often conform to political norms. However, we know little about the mechanisms underlying political conformity. Whose norms are people likely to follow, and why? This article discusses two phenomena—social identity and “self-conscious” emotions—that are key to understanding when and why people follow the crowd. It argues that adherence to in-group norms is a critical basis of status among in-group peers. Conformity generates peer approval and leads to personal pride. Deviance generates disapproval and causes embarrassment or shame. These emotional reactions color an individual’s political perspectives, typically generating conformity. These same mechanisms can spur between-group polarization. In this case, differentiation from the norms of disliked out-groups results in peer approval and pride, and conformity to out-group norms disapproval and embarrassment or shame. This framework is supported by the results of two experiments that examine the influence of group opinion norms over economic and social aspects of citizens’ political ideologies. One exogenously varies the social identity of attitudinal majorities; the other primes the relevant emotions. In addition to contributing to the study of political conformity and polarization, this article adds to our growing understanding of the relevance of social identity and emotion to political life.

As of July 1, 2014, the author will be Assistant Professor of Government at American University.