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«Does Enclave Deliberation Polarize Opinions? ¨ ¨¨ Kimmo Gronlund • Kaisa Herne • Maija Setala Published online: 8 February 2015 Ó The ...»

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Polit Behav (2015) 37:995–1020

DOI 10.1007/s11109-015-9304-x


Does Enclave Deliberation Polarize Opinions?

¨ ¨¨

Kimmo Gronlund • Kaisa Herne • Maija Setala

Published online: 8 February 2015

Ó The Author(s) 2015. This article is published with open access at Springerlink.com


When like-minded people discuss with each other, i.e. engage in ‘enclave deliberation’, their opinions tend to become more extreme. This is called group polarization. A population-based experiment with a pre-test post-test design was conducted to analyze whether the norms and procedures of deliberation interfere with the mechanisms of group polarization. Based on a survey, people with either permissive or restrictive attitudes toward immigration were first identified and then invited to the experiment. The participants were randomly assigned to likeminded and mixed small-n groups. Each like-minded group consisted of only permissive or restrictive participants, whereas each mixed group consisted of four permissive and four restrictive participants. The like-minded treatment represents enclave deliberation, and the mixed treatment a ‘standard’ deliberative mini-public design. The main finding of our experiment is that people with anti-immigrant attitudes become more tolerant even when they deliberate in like-minded groups.

Moreover, similar learning curves are observed in both treatments. Based on the results, we conclude that deliberative norms can alleviate the negative consequences of discussion in like-minded groups.

Keywords Enclave deliberation Á Deliberative democracy Á Group polarization Á Group think Á Experiment Á Immigration attitudes ¨ K. Gronlund (&) ˚ ˚ Social Science Research Institute, Abo Akademi University, 20500 Abo, Finland e-mail: kimmo.gronlund@abo.fi K. Herne School of Management, Politics, University of Tampere, 33014 Tampere, Finland e-mail: kaisa.herne@uta.fi ¨¨ M. Setala Department of Political Science, University of Turku, 20014 Turku, Finland e-mail: maija.setala@utu.fi 996 Polit Behav (2015) 37:995–1020 Introduction Theories of deliberative democracy provide normative criteria for the evaluation of political discussion (Delli Carpini et al. 2004; Dryzek 2000). Moreover, the quality of public decisions can be expected to depend on the quality of democratic deliberation preceding decision-making. Deliberation can be defined as communication based on the merits of arguments, such as the sophistication of justifications and the generalizability of moral principles (e.g. Steenbergen et al. 2003). Recently, broader definitions of deliberation have been put forward in the literature. Along with rational argumentation, these definitions include other forms of communication such as rhetoric and narratives (see e.g. Mansbridge et al. 2010). Despite these developments, the idea of public reasoning among free and equal individuals remains in the core of the concept of democratic deliberation. Moreover, deliberative democrats agree that deliberation involves both intersubjective processes of exchanging arguments and internal processes of reflection based on these arguments (Goodin 2000).

One of the key features of deliberation is the inclusion of different viewpoints in the process of exchanging arguments. Indeed, the presence of conflicting viewpoints is often regarded as a necessary condition for deliberation. For example, Thompson (2008, 502) argues as follows: ‘‘If the participants are mostly like-minded or hold the same views before they enter into the discussion, they are not situated in the circumstances of deliberation’’. However, the term ‘enclave deliberation’ has been increasingly used to refer to discussion among like-minded people. Cass Sunstein (2002, 2007, 2009) has emphasized the problems and risks related to enclave deliberation, most importantly group polarization. Other scholars (e.g. Karpowitz et al. 2009; see also Sunstein 2007, 76–77) have pointed out the importance of enclave deliberation for political articulation and mobilization, especially for those in disadvantaged positions. Indeed, Mansbridge (1994, 63), who was probably the first to use the term enclave deliberation, called for ‘‘enclaves of protected discourse and action’’ as an element of a just society.

In this paper, we study how the outcomes of deliberation vary depending on whether the deliberative discussion takes place among like-minded people or among people who disagree on a political issue. Our analysis is based on an experiment where citizens, drawn from a random sample, deliberated on immigration. The experiment was held in Finland in the spring of 2012. Although group composition is subject to manipulation in the experiment, the other ‘standard’ procedures of deliberative mini-publics are applied. These procedural features include balanced information provided to all participants as well as the use of moderators and discussion rules designed to encourage a process where people are exposed to different arguments and reflect on their own position in relation to them. We aim to look at the effects of group composition while holding the deliberative context constant. Our study therefore follows the recommendation made by Mutz (2006, 61) as we aim to disentangle the effects of group composition from the other aspects of the deliberative ‘package’.

The paper is organized in the following manner. First, we discuss the idea and mechanisms of enclave deliberation together with a literature review. After that,

–  –  –

four hypotheses are formulated. Third, the experimental procedure is described.

Fourth, the data gathered in the surveys during the experiment are analyzed. Finally, conclusions are provided together with discussion on the findings.

Earlier research on enclave deliberation Cass Sunstein (2002, 2007) has raised the question of the future of democracy if people only ever listen and speak to the like-minded. He addresses the problem of ‘group thinking’ which may arise when like-minded people discuss among themselves. It may lead to group polarization and an amplification of cognitive errors. Group polarization occurs when deliberation in a group of like-minded participants reinforces the attitudes and opinions prevailing in the group at the outset. Sunstein (2009, 3) defines polarization as follows: ‘‘[…] members of a deliberating group usually end up at a more extreme position in the same general direction as their inclinations before deliberation began’’. Group thinking can also affect people’s factual beliefs. According to Sunstein (2007, 80–95, 140–143), enclave deliberation may lead to an amplification of cognitive errors, which means that biased or erroneous epistemic beliefs are corroborated. He also points out that large-scale misconceptions, or ‘informational cascades’ may come up in enclave deliberation because people just follow the cues provided by others in the absence of contrary evidence.

There are different mechanisms contributing to polarization when opinions in a group are biased at the outset. More precisely, two types of mechanism have been identified; namely social comparison and persuasive arguments (Farrar et al. 2009, 616; Isenberg 1986; Sunstein 2002, 179–180). Social comparison refers to the tendency of individuals to act in order to win social acceptance from other members of the group. In order to be accepted, individuals need to process information of how other people present themselves, and adjust their own behavior accordingly (Isenberg 1986, 1142). Individuals may act in different ways in order to be perceived favorably by other group members. First, they may try to adjust their opinions according to the view which seems to dominate the group.1 Social psychological experiments have also demonstrated that group pressures work in the way that people tend to conform to the views of the majority (Asch 1948). Second, social comparison may also make people emphasize their difference from others to the valued direction (Isenberg 1986, 1142). In other words, individuals may take positions which are more extreme in comparison to the views dominating the group at the outset.

The other mechanism behind group polarization, persuasive arguments, is simply based on the idea that individuals are convinced by the contents of arguments put forward in the group. Consequently, if arguments heard in a group are biased in one direction, there is likely to be a further shift to this direction. Group polarization is likely to be reinforced by biases in information processing. ‘Confirmation bias’ is a The so-called ‘spiral of silence’ means that, in fear of social isolation, people who think that their political views are unpopular remain silent in the group (Noelle-Neumann 1993, 201–202).

998 Polit Behav (2015) 37:995–1020

well-established phenomenon which means that people are inclined to seek information confirming their prior beliefs and to disregard information against them (Mercier and Landemore 2012, 251). More generally, motivated reasoning refers to a variety of cognitive and affective mechanisms which lead individuals to arrive at the conclusions they want to arrive at (Kunda 1990). In a group of like-minded people, individual biases in information processing and reasoning are not checked by arguments put forward by individuals supporting conflicting views. Opinions are likely to polarize because individuals only hear arguments supporting their own prior position—in fact; they may even hear new arguments in support of it.

The negative consequences of discussion among like-minded people have been confirmed by social psychological studies. Sunstein himself (2007, 60–62) provides some experimental evidence on group polarization. He puts forward a summary of social psychological studies showing that groups tend to move toward the direction of the position initially dominating the group (Sunstein 2009, 161–168). The discussion topics of the described experiments range from jury decisions to risk taking and militarism and pacifism. In a recent study on political discussion, Jones (2013) found evidence on the polarization of opinions, especially among the Republicans, in a partisan workplace environment.2 Some studies on group polarization have not even involved proper discussion. For example, Lee’s (2007) study showing that group polarization is correlated to group identification is based on computer-mediated communication and not actual discussion between the group members.

Sunstein’s account on group polarization emphasizes the original dispositions of those who discuss and the biases in the argument pool. However, the studies he discusses do not represent experiments on democratic deliberation understood as a specific form of discussion where certain standards of reasoning and argumentation are followed. So-called deliberative mini-publics (Goodin and Dryzek 2006) involve procedures enhancing democratic deliberation. Most importantly, participants of mini-publics receive balanced information on the issue and group discussions are moderated. Results from deliberative mini-publics provide a different picture from that of Sunstein’s: Groups de-polarize rather than polarize, people learn during ¨¨ deliberation and their misperceptions are corrected (e.g. Luskin et al. 2002; Setala ¨ et al. 2010; Gronlund et al. 2010). Moreover, people learn about facts supporting views which they initially disagreed with (Andersen and Hansen 2007). These results may be explained by the fact that the inclusion of different viewpoints is ensured in deliberative mini-publics which therefore do not represent deliberation in likeminded groups. This explanation suggests that group composition may be a crucial determinant of deliberative outcomes (Mendelberg and Karpowitz 2007).

Sunstein (2009, 48) argues as follows: ‘‘When groups contain equally opposed subgroups, do not hold rigidly to their positions, and listen to one another, members will shift toward the middle; they will depolarize. The effect of mixing will be to produce moderation’’. Mercier and Landemore (2012, 253) argue that in genuine deliberation, the biases present in individual reasoning are checked by biases in arguments of individuals representing different viewpoints. Moreover, without a Mutz and Mondak (2006), on the other hand, use survey evidence to demonstrate that the workplace commonly provides an environment for cross-cutting political discourse.

Polit Behav (2015) 37:995–1020 999

clearly dominant view in the group, people are likely to accommodate their arguments in ways which could appeal to people representing conflicting viewpoints. Indeed, Mercier and Landemore argue that collective processes of deliberation are likely to be the most effective remedies for biases in information processing and reasoning.


In this article, we analyze the impact of group composition on the outcomes of deliberation. More specifically, we compare the outcomes of deliberation in likeminded groups with those groups where the participants’ opinions are divided. The analysis is based on an experiment where citizens were invited to deliberate on immigration policy. Based on earlier theoretical and empirical findings, we test four hypotheses which relate to opinion and knowledge changes. H1a and H1b concern opinions, whereas H2a and H2b address cognitive errors.

• H1a Deliberation in like-minded groups leads to a polarization of opinions.

• H1b Deliberation in mixed groups de-polarizes opinions.

• H2a Deliberation in like-minded groups amplifies cognitive errors.

• H2b Deliberation in mixed groups corrects cognitive errors.

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