Group Polarization Vs. Groupthink: Learning The Difference (And When To Speak Up)

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

As humans, we tend to thrive in cooperative group environments, where shared goals and collective decision-making can often lead to better outcomes. However, group dynamics can sometimes lead to less desirable phenomena, such as group polarization and groupthink. Both concepts describe how group decisions can veer towards extremes or uniformity, yet they stem from distinctly different psychological processes.

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?

Group polarization refers to the phenomenon observed when the decisions and opinions of people in a group setting become more extreme than their initial, individual inclinations. This effect is seen after group discussion, where the average viewpoint of the group members shifts towards a more extreme position than what they believed before the discussion. 

For example, imagine a jury that is initially leaning towards finding a defendant guilty of a crime, but with varying degrees of certainty among the jurors. As the jurors discuss the case, they share arguments and evidence supporting the defendant's guilt, reinforcing their initial leanings. 

Those who were uncertain or moderately convinced might be swayed by the stronger arguments and the desire to align with the group consensus. Consequently, the discussion leads to a more unanimous and stronger conviction in the defendant's guilt than initially held by individual jurors.

Why does group polarization occur?

Group polarization has been the subject of much research within social psychology, and researchers have proposed a number of possible mechanisms behind this phenomenon. 

  • Group cohesion: People have a deep need to be accepted and belong, and those who have a moderate or opposing opinion might feel compelled to shift their views to align more closely with the perceived group consensus to maintain their acceptance and status within the group. 
  • Persuasive arguments: During group discussions, individuals are exposed to new arguments and information they hadn't considered before. If these new arguments are in favor of the direction the group is leaning towards, they can reinforce the initial leanings, pushing the group towards a more extreme position.
  • Social comparison:Social comparison theory suggests that individuals are motivated to gain accurate self-evaluations and will compare themselves with others to do so. In a group setting, people may shift their opinions to align more closely with what they perceive as the group norm, especially if they believe it reflects a more socially desirable or correct stance.
  • Differential information exposure:Differential information exposure occurs when group members selectively share information that supports the group's initial leanings, leading to biased discussions that further polarize opinions. This creates an echo chamber effect, minimizing exposure to counterarguments or diverse perspectives.
  • Leadership and authority figures: The influence of charismatic or authoritative figures within the group can also steer group opinions towards more extreme positions, especially if these leaders are perceived as knowledgeable or are particularly persuasive.
  • Self-categorization:Self-categorization theory suggests that people classify themselves into social categories, contributing to group polarization by strengthening identification with their group. This leads to increased conformity to group norms and attitudes, driving individuals towards more extreme positions aligned with the group's identity.

What is groupthink?

Groupthink refers to when the desire for group harmony overwhelms the desire for accurate analysis and critical evaluation, leading to poor decision-making. In this environment, the pressure to conform and maintain group cohesion causes members to suppress dissenting opinions, avoid presenting alternative solutions, and disregard potential risks or drawbacks associated with the group's decisions. 

This collective mindset prioritizes consensus over thoroughness and diversity of thought, often resulting in suboptimal outcomes or the overlooking of vital information.

Groupthink was first identified by psychologist Irving Janis in the 1970s, highlighting how a group's quest for unanimity can lead to poor decision-making. Janis illustrated the concept with significant historical events, such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, showing how suppression of dissent and lack of critical evaluation can result in flawed judgments.

Groupthink: Identifying the signs

  • 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

It’s not uncommon to be uncomfortable speaking up in a crowd—in fact, the desire not to “go against the grain” is one of the primary drivers of groupthink and polarization. Besides feeling uncomfortable speaking up, we also tend not to like feeling as though we are the only one with a certain opinion. In some cases, we may even fear being seen as domineering, or being put into situations where we risk becoming defensive.

However, learning how to navigate the discomfort of dissent and express your opinion respectfully is a valuable skill that can help you contribute to more balanced and thoughtful decision-making processes. Here are some tips to help you:

  • Seek one-on-one conversations: If expressing your opinion in a group feels daunting, consider talking to individuals one-on-one. This can sometimes make it easier to share your thoughts without the pressure of a group's immediate reaction.
  • Write down your thoughts: Sometimes, writing can be a powerful way to clarify and express your thoughts. You could write an email, a memo, or a note to share your opinion in a more controlled and thoughtful manner.
  • Find an ally: Look for someone within the group who might share your perspective or be open to hearing it. Having an ally can make it easier to voice your opinion, as it provides immediate support and validation.
  • Use questions to spark discussion: If directly stating your opinion feels too confrontational, try asking questions instead. Thoughtful questions can challenge the status quo and encourage others to consider different perspectives without directly opposing the group.
  • Seek external feedback: Sometimes, discussing your concerns with someone outside of the situation can provide a fresh perspective and boost your confidence in your viewpoint.
  • Practice assertiveness: Working on your assertiveness skills can help you feel more comfortable expressing your thoughts. This includes practicing how to state your opinion clearly and respectfully, without being aggressive.
  • Propose a "devil's advocate" role: Suggesting the formal role of a devil's advocate in group discussions can normalize the expression of dissenting opinions and make it easier for everyone to share different perspectives.
  • Look for common ground: Rather than __, it can help to begin by establishing areas of agreement or shared values. This approach fosters a sense of unity, making it easier to discuss viewpoints in a way that is more likely to be heard and considered thoughtfully.

Remember, your opinion is valuable, and finding a way to express it can contribute to better decision-making and a healthier group dynamic. However, the approach you choose should be one that you're comfortable with and that considers the context and potential outcomes.

iStock/Comeback Images
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.

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.  
Seeking to improve your mental health?
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started