Group Polarization Vs. Groupthink: What Is The Difference?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated May 2, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Most of us have heard of groupthink, though we may not fully know its meaning. Group polarization is a term of equal importance, though one that may also be unclear. Group polarization refers to the tendency for group decision making to result in more extreme decisions than individual decisions. Knowing the difference between group polarization and groupthink can be important for understanding how our thoughts and opinions are being shaped by group discussions and group values. We'll look at the similarities and differences between group polarization and groupthink, and explain why it’s important to avoid them or seek out help if you find yourself acting or behaving in ways you normally wouldn’t, due to normative influence or informational influence.

Could You Benefit From Hearing A Different Perspective?

What Is Group Polarization?

Have you ever sat down to talk with someone and by the end of the conversation, you believe more adamantly in your correctness and their wrongness? If so, you may have been experiencing what’s known as group polarization.

For example, let’s say you’re talking about something silly, like whether bananas are better than strawberries for a snack. You sit down to have a group discussion and, before you know it, you are staunchly defending your opinion and feeling like the other group member is wrong for their thoughts. Maybe you don't even really like bananas, but you find yourself firmly entrenched in your opinion.

Social psychology has found that this happens a lot (and with far more important issues than bananas and strawberries). Group polarization occurs when group decisions make people feel even more stubborn and hard-headed about their own opinions. Experimental social psychology researchers have continued to evaluate why this happens and what it means. What they've found is that social comparison plays a role, as people have a deep need to be accepted and belong. In general, people who have a moderate opinion feel like they are not accepted and that they should belong to a well established group.

So how does a moderate opinion get you into a group? It doesn't. Being staunch and firm in your opinions gets you into a group, and so, people tend to pull off into specific and very strongly opinionated groups. Group polarization effects result in conformity, which could push you further into a corner than you ever intended to be. Later, you may wonder how you ever came to the conclusions you did, influenced by persuasive arguments and group discussion shifts.

What Is Groupthink?

Groupthink is based on the same type of feeling and desire to be accepted as group polarization, but it takes effect in a slightly different way. Instead of thinking strongly that you are right and the other person is wrong when groupthink takes over, group members start to fall in line with the opinions and beliefs of the majority. Groups discussing problems may experience this phenomenon. Instead of voicing their own opinions, everyone starts to believe in the same way.

Individuals who fall victim to groupthink tend to succumb to peer pressure and go along with whatever the group wants. They may think that they don't like what the group is doing or even that they don't agree, but they still allow the group to take charge. Either way, the group gets its way, and everyone who doesn't agree with it is swept along.

There are eight aspects or symptoms that indicate groupthink is taking place. These include:

  • Illusions of invulnerability (i.e., believing that if you're with the group, you're unstoppable)
  • Rationalization (i.e., giving 'reasons' not to dispute the thoughts of the group)
  • Unquestioned beliefs (i.e., ignoring any moral problem associated with the act)
  • Stereotyping (i.e., creating an “us vs. them” mentality for those in or out of the group, such as an opposing political party)
  • Self-censorship (i.e., forcing everyone to hide their thoughts or fears)
  • Illusions of unanimity (i.e., making you believe everyone else already believes the way the group does)
  • Direct pressure (i.e., pushing you to accept)
  • Mind guards (i.e., hiding anything that might be contrary to the beliefs of the group, often seen on social media platforms)

Group polarization compared to groupthink reveals different mechanisms, but both can have significant impacts on decision-making and group dynamics.

Why Are Groupthink And Group Polarization Unhealthy?

The truth is that either group polarization or groupthink can result in problems for you in the future and even in the immediate moment. In group polarization scenarios, we seem to “double down” on stances that may not hold much significance – it’s the fact that someone holds an opposite opinion to ours that influences us to plant our feet more firmly in the ground. Groupthink involves the opposite: a surrender to authority. In both situations, one may risk fundamentally damaging or changing one’s identity in ways that can have devastating consequences. 

It’s important to be able to disagree respectfully, explore multiple perspectives, and be open to changing or adjusting one’s opinion.

Social comparison theory suggests that we often evaluate ourselves in relation to others, which can lead to these group dynamics. Rational discussions can lead to new insights or positive changes. Group polarization and groupthink, however, can often disrupt this process.

Groupthink and group polarization stymie civil harmony by causing people with different opinions to keep their mouths shut, second-guess, or conform to the group/majority. The truth is that with groupthink and group polarization, no one knows what the majority thinks because not everyone is voicing their true opinion.

If you have an opinion that is different from someone else's, it's important to be able to voice that opinion. Feel free to defend your opinion with your own beliefs and with facts, but be willing to accept the things that someone else says as possible facts and valid opinions, as well. This approach aligns with the persuasive arguments theory, which emphasizes the importance of considering possible facts and valid opinions as well.

Just because you hear an opinion you don’t agree with doesn’t mean it's 100% wrong or 100% right. Being open to something new from another person and being willing to voice your opinion even if you're the only one with that opinion is important and ultimately helps progress society. This openness can prevent risky shift and improve decision-making in various settings, even among staunchly ethical groups such as federal district court judges.

What To Do When You're Not Comfortable Voicing Your Opinion

Maybe you don't feel comfortable being the only one with a certain type of opinion. Or it might make you uncomfortable to speak up to a crowd that has a completely different opinion than you. Maybe you don't like to listen to opinions that differ from yours. What if you find yourself getting too defensive and domineering or submitting to groupthink? If you find yourself doing either of these things frequently, it's important to adjust, make changes, and attempt to grow from it. These are all things you can begin to work on.

Feeling more self-confident can help you to avoid group polarization and groupthink, which you may be able to accomplish in talk therapy. A mental health professional is someone that you can talk to about your thoughts, feelings, and opinions and learn more about how to accept those of other people around you. They can help you explain group polarization and its effects on your interactions.

Look for ways to moderate your opinions at least a little, where needed. Find ways that you can be a more effective listener and attempt to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings more deeply so that you can better understand your own. It's not always easy to start putting these plans into action, but it's something that you can do over time and with minimal effort.

Start small and build your way up. If you take a few minutes to sit back and be quiet while someone else is talking so you can listen to their opinion instead of talking about them, that could be a positive first step. If you speak up and voice your opinion in a situation where it seems like you're the only one who has that opinion, it's a step in the right direction as well. Consider both the persuasive argument and why significant arguments occurred to create a more balanced discussion.

Could You Benefit From Hearing A Different Perspective?

Online Therapy With BetterHelp

Not everyone feels comfortable discussing their experiences in submitting to groupthink or group polarization. In many cases, people may feel ashamed of what they did or did not do. Shame can be a significant deterrent to seeking help. Online therapy may give you the confidence and ability you need to fully open up. You can connect with a licensed therapist through BetterHelp, an online counseling platform. Here, you can connect in whatever way makes you feel most comfortable.

The Efficacy Of Online Therapy 

Recent research demonstrates how internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be effective in alleviating social anxiety symptoms by reducing individuals’ levels of shame. This can be harder to achieve in an in-person therapy setting, where you must look someone in the eye and be mere feet away from them. The online therapy setting often allows people to be more open and honest, and more quickly—allowing them to find relief sooner. 


Group polarization and groupthink are two mindsets that can be easy to fall into, especially because humans have an innate desire to be accepted and belong. Recognizing when you might be falling into one of these traps can help you push against it. An online therapist can help you overcome feelings of shame you might be experiencing as a result of one of these mindsets. With their guidance, you can develop more self-confidence and move forward with a greater ability to express your true thoughts, feelings, and opinions.  

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