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Can you explain opinion polarization without negative influence?

posted Oct 4, 2013, 6:12 PM by Michael Maes   [ updated Jan 6, 2014, 5:49 AM ]
PLoS One published a joint paper with Andreas Flache: Differentiation without distancing. Explaining bi-polarization of opinions without negative influence. 
 
Summary: One of the most prominent dynamics addressed in the sociological literature is social differentiation, the emergence and intensifications of differences in groups, organizations, and societies. In this paper, we focus on bi-polarization of opinions, which is defined as the development subgroups with increasingly antagonistic opinionsWe show that existing explanations of opinion bi-polarization hinge on the assumption of negative influence, individuals’ striving to amplify differences to disliked others. However, empirical evidence for negative influence is inconclusive, which motivated us to search for an alternative explanation. In other words, we ask whether or not it is possible that opinion differences increase over time even though individuals do not seek to increase opinion disagreement. We demonstrate that bi-polarization can be explained without negative influence, drawing on theories that emphasize the communication of arguments as central mechanism of influence. Due to homophily, actors interact mainly with others whose arguments will intensify existing tendencies for or against the issue at stake. We develop an agent-based model of this theory and compare its implications to those of existing social-influence models, deriving testable hypotheses about the conditions of bi-polarization. Hypotheses were tested with a group-discussion experiment (N=96). Results demonstrate that argument exchange can entail bi-polarization even when there is no negative influence.