My research is more and more about polarization in society. I study attitude formation, a psychological process, and relate that to phenomena of opinion diffusion, a sociological process.
Polarization occurs when many people are radicalized into opposing positions. We can detect this by looking at the distribution of opinions. If the distribution is two-peaked instead of normally distributed we are faced with polarization. In that case persons are radicalized. Radicalization occurs when an individual becomes very involved with an issue, insensitive to counterarguments and holds extreme opinions.
But what is extreme? If everyone has the same extreme opinion then we won't find a two-headed distribution. So how do we know whether that opinion is extreme? Can we identify radicalization in one person, so to speak, on an otherwise uninhabited island?
Let me make it personal. Am I radicalized? Are there issues about which I am very concerned, my point of view is extreme, and (but this is almost inconceivable) I am not so sensitive to reasonable counter-arguments?
I do have a few candidates. For example, I am for legalization of all drugs, for voting rights as young as 6, and against religion. I will abuse these columns for some self-examination on these topics. I will show that my seemingly extreme views are very nuanced.
But first some preparations and back to the question of whether we can all be radicalized in one position. For example, we all agree that we cannot fly out the window. There may be eccentrics who disagree but in that case natural selection immediately does its job. Are we unilaterally polarized and radicalized on this issue? Surely the commitment or even fanaticism that comes with radicalization is missing for this. It is also unclear what information or counterarguments are being ignored here.
The shape of the earth is another interesting case. We see flathearthers as radicalized conspiracy thinkers. But there are so few of them that the opinion distribution is skewed towards the round earth. Am I, along with millions of Dutch people, radicalized as a roundearther? It must be said that I have not seriously delved into the arguments of the flathearthers. But what is missing is fanaticism, the whole issue does not interest me at all. I don’t write pieces in the newspaper about the round earth and I don’t start talking about it at parties. In my opinion, you can't be radicalized when you’re not interested. Of course, this is not to say that the disinterested majority is necessarily right. Take the issue of voting rights from the age of 6! Disinterest is by no means an indication of being right.
Perhaps national pride is a good example of one-sided radicalization. In a few months' time, the vast majority of the Dutch population will again consider the Dutch national team to be the best, or at least one of the best teams in the world. A minority finds soccer rather uninteresting, but they do not count. We lack a fanatical group of supporters who think the Dutch team is too bad for words (except when we are eliminated early).
Crucial to radicalization and polarization, then, is involvement. Our own mathematical model of attitude formation, a variant of the renowned Ising model for magnetism, is a somewhat cynical one in this regard. Those who become involved radicalize! There is no such thing as a nuanced involved opinion. A judge who truly immerses himself in a case will always take sides. The only option for neutrality is total disinterest. Now our model is only a model and it may still be possible that I have a strong but nuanced opinion on drugs (legalize!). And that is what I am going to prove!
Han van der Maas is a professor in psychological methods.