Political Behavior

, Volume 37, Issue 1, pp 221–251 | Cite as

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

  • Elizabeth SuhayEmail author
Original Paper


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.


Conformity Polarization Social identity Emotion Norms Political opinion 



A great many people have contributed to this article by sharing their insightful observations, criticisms, and suggestions. I would like to especially thank my dissertation committee—Ted Brader, Don Herzog, Don Kinder, and David Winter. I also received helpful comments from Kevin Arceneaux, John Bullock, Eric Dickson, Erika Franklin Fowler, Eric Groenendyk, Marc Hetherington, Nathan Kalmoe, Chris Karpowitz, Skip Lupia, George Marcus, Roger Masters, Ngoc Phan, Stephanie Preston, Lynn Sanders, Laura Stoker, and three anonymous reviewers. I am grateful to The University of Michigan for generous financial support during my graduate education as well as to the Catholic leaders and community members in Michigan who made Study 1 possible.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Government and LawLafayette CollegeEastonUSA

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